The YMCA’s early role in the Indian Olympic movement cannot be emphasized enough. Its national network provided a lifeline for those who wanted to set up a national sporting movement.

[Edited exclusive extracts from Nalin Mehta, Boria Majumdar, Olympics: The India Story, HarperCollins, 2012, 3rd edition, first published 2008]

The YMCA, India And The Global Olympic Movement

To make sense of how the Olympic ideal progressed in India through the 1920s, it is imperative to see it in the context of global trends about Olympism in the same period and the ‘Olympic explosion’ that took place in another under-developed region, Latin America. In both regions, the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) played a pivotal role in stimulating Olympism. The Olympic movement needed a vehicle of organization in every new country it targeted. The YMCA, a global body with finely organized national tentacles in many under-developed countries, provided a ready option. As we shall see, Dorabji Tata’s association with both bodies proved a pivotal fulcrum.

The Latin American ‘Olympic explosion’ in the 1920s, as Cesar Torres calls it, was largely possible because of a partnership between the IOC and the YMCA. According to Torres’ masterful study, the ‘explosion’ occurred due to a confluence of three factors: ‘Latin American sporting cultures at the end of the First World War; an appreciation of Coubertin’s new strategies of globalization developed during the war; and a recognition of the crucial role that an alliance between the IOC and the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA)…’

During the First World War, de Coubertin was gravely concerned that the Games might be exterminated by the tumultuous political conditions created by the continuing violence. This anxiety made it essential to seek newer pastures for his Olympic ideology and he began to see this expansion as the key to the survival of the Olympic Games. The emphasis was to spread the Olympic gospel to areas unaffected by the war. If he could globalize Olympic affairs, de Coubertin thought, he would ensure that if not in Europe the Games would at least continue in other corners of the world. He was simultaneously growing more and more anxious about the potential of the Inter-Allied Games being organized in the US. These Games, designated as the ‘Military Olympics’, were being planned in collaboration with the YMCA.

Nervous about its bearing on the Olympic endeavour, de Coubertin, as Torres mentions, wrote to Elwood S. Brown, the international director of the YMCA on 25 January 1919 objecting against the ‘action of the YMCA in deciding to hold Olympics in France in 1919’. Brown immediately wrote back allaying de Coubertin’s fears, declaring that the Inter-Allied Games ‘is not a rival of the Olympic Games in any sense’. His assurance had a comforting effect on de Coubertin and this started a long association between the two that lasted several years and transformed the fundamental nature of the Olympic movement. It was at Brown’s insistence that De Coubertin agreed to utilize the wide reach of the YMCA to spread the message of Olympism across Latin America. Stressing the role of the YMCA, Brown declared: “a most unusual opportunity now existed to give a great impulse to physical training throughout the world, to develop backward areas along the lines of Olympic ideas and ideals, and to contribute definitely to the extension of your Committee’s influence.”

Assured of Coubertin’s support, Brown officially presented his proposal to the IOC at Antwerp in August 1920. It is of great importance that Sir Dorabji Tata, representing British India, was present in this session and followed the entire deliberation with keen interest. The proposal stressed the idea that the YMCA and the IOC had similar goals and drew attention to the YMCA’s global structure. All its branches played key roles in promoting physical education and ‘manly sporting activity’ and its organizational strength, Brown noted, was expected to add manifold to the IOC’s global potency.

The YMCA had already held regional games like the Far Eastern Games in 1913 that helped in stimulating popularity of Olympic sports across the world. IOC recognition, Brown insisted and de Coubertin concurred, would impart legitimacy to these efforts and this was the primary reason why the IOC unanimously accepted the scheme proposed by Brown. ‘With the partnership fully endorsed and Brown named South American charge-de mission, the IOC and the YMCA embarked on the first project the YMCA had in store, the 1922 Latin American Games.’

Dorabji Tata had already learnt his lessons at Antwerp and soon after his return to India insisted on enlisting the support of Dr A.G. Noehren of the Madras YMCA for India’s Olympic cause. It was no accident that the selection trials in Delhi for the 1924 team were conducted under the expert supervision of H.C. Buck, staff of the Madras YMCA College of Physical Education.

On the IOC’s part, it did everything possible to encourage British India to join the Olympic family. The YMCA presence did much to boost the IOC’s confidence and even though there was no permanent Indian Olympic institution in 1920 or 1924, the IOC allowed the Indian delegation to participate in the Games as part of its vision to globalize the movement. While Tata acted as a bridge, the IOC was also independently in touch with the Indian YMCA.

There is evidence for this in a letter from Dr J. Henry Gray, national physical director for the YMCA for India, Burma and Ceylon to Count Latour on 28 December 1928. The letter was primarily meant to update the IOC president on the progress of Olympism in India. To start with, Dr Gray thanked the IOC president for sending him back issues of the ‘International Olympic Bulletin’ and also for including him in the IOC’s mailing list. He then suggested that Olympic organization in India had begun on a positive note in 1922 and the power behind this, as in Latin America, was the YMCA.

Though the involvement of the YMCA had lost sheen with the resignation of Dr Noehren in 1927, YMCA cadres were still carrying on the bulk of the work in the provinces to promote Olympic sports and were instrumental in maintaining the fabric of the provincial sports organizations. In a country the size of India, this was no small concern. As Tata noted: “India is such a vast continent, as big as Europe without Russia. When I went to Calcutta to see the Olympic Games last month, for the eight days that I was away from Bombay five of those were spent in the train.”

The YMCA’s early role in the Indian Olympic movement cannot be emphasized enough. Its national network provided a lifeline for those who wanted to set up a national sporting movement.