Hitler’s Games

Berlin Olympics of 1936 finally put to rest the question mark against India’s hockey supremacy. Exclusive extracts from this meticulously researched book show the role of Captain Dhyan Chand and Indian Nationalism in the Third Reich…

Exclusive Extracts from Olympics: The India Story by Boria Majumdar and Nalin Mehta


Nowadays I hear of the princely comforts provided for national teams traveling overseas, and the fuss players raise if they happen to miss even a cup of tea! When we used to travel, the name of our country and the game were the only two things that mattered.

—Dhyan Chand on India’s title defence at the 1936 Berlin Olympic Games[1]

‘Will India Lose Under My Charge?’

Dhyan Chand’s Delhi Dilemma

Despite having comprehensively beaten the world in 1928 and 1932, India’s supremacy in field hockey was still in doubt on the eve of the Berlin Games in 1936. This was because all of Europe had stayed away from the 1932 hockey competition at Los Angeles on account of the Great Depression and also because European hockey had improved by quite a few notches in the interim. Accordingly, trying to defend the title at Berlin in 1936 was the biggest challenge Indian hockey had ever faced. That India was ready for it was evident when the Indian team won all 48 matches on its tour of New Zealand in 1935. [2]

 But it’s the nature of sport that even the greatest of champions can have an off-day. There was a big flutter when the Indian Olympic team, picked after the inter-province trials at Calcutta in January– February 1936, lost 1–4 to a Delhi Hockey XI on 16 June at the Mori Gate ground. This was unprecedented and the shock defeat started dark murmurs. Touring international cricket sides would in later years learn to attribute their defeats in the Indian capital to the mysterious malady called ‘Delhi belly’. Dhyan Chand, the newly appointed captain of the national team, did not, of course, use the same excuse but his bewilderment and shock were there for all to see.

In his autobiography, published 16 years later, he beautifully described the after-effect of this wake-up call:

My experiences thus far had been to win matches and not lose them. I remember that in 1932, after our return from the Olympic tour, we beat Delhi by 12 goals to nil. I never recognized Delhi as a big hockey playing center, but on this day they were right on top of us and completely outplayed us. The news of this defeat created adverse opinions about us, and while we were touring other centers before we finally sailed from Mumbai, this particular defeat kept worrying me. For the first time I was captaining the Olympic team; will India lose the title under my charge? [3]

Later generations would justifiably remember Dhyan Chand as a wizard who could do no wrong. But his musings after the Delhi defeat revealed the eternal truth of all sport: even the greatest of legends are only human. By now Dhyan Chand was worried about his legacy and suffered from moments of self-doubt. In the run-up to the Berlin Games, Dhyan Chand’s anxieties were particularly pertinent, for his appointment as captain was mired in controversy. Despite being the best player, Dhyan Chand’s claims for captaincy had been circumvented in 1932 on account of what was seen as his inferior social status. A lowly soldier in the Army, he had been passed up as captain earlier despite being the best player in the team and its talisman. By 1936 the sheer weight of his exploits and his towering presence on the field forced a rethink. But Dhyan Chand was only too conscious of the new responsibility and the tremendous burden on him at a time when social divides still largely governed public life. One small slip, and the knives would be out for him. As he noted, ‘I was bypassed in 1932 possibly because of my academic handicaps and so-called social position in life. I was still an ordinary soldier, holding a minor rank.’ [4] Pawalankar Baloo, the great Dalit cricketer at the turn of the 20th century, whose social origins initially denied him entry into the Hindu Gymkhana in Bombay, would have sympathized.

Baloo overcame high-caste derision to become one of the Hindu Gymkhana’s greatest stars in the Bombay Pentangular but was never made captain. It wasn’t until 1923 that his brother Pawalankar Vithal broke the captaincy barrier in cricket.[5] In Dhyan Chand’s case, class barriers had been the biggest obstacle and the fact that he was finally given the captaincy placed him under enormous pressure at Berlin.

To The Führer:
An Indian In Berlin

Of all the Olympics before the world wars, none is better documented on film than the Berlin Games. This can partly be attributed to advances in film technology but a major reason lies in the propaganda value of the Games for Adolf Hitler, who had ridden on the Weimar Republic’s post-Versailles discontent and humiliation to achieve power through the Berlin putsch of 1933.[6] Berlin won the bid for the 1936 Games long before Hitler and the Nazis came to power [7] but for a leader who had just openly repudiated the Treaty of Versailles, the Olympics became an occasion to promote Nazi ideology. [8] Joseph Goebbels, the Reich minister for popular enlightenment and propaganda, played a big part in convincing Hitler of the publicity value of the Games and film-maker Leni Reifenstahl, a favourite of Hitler’s, was commissioned to film them. Her film Olympia originated many of the techniques now commonplace to the filming of sports. [9]

Berlin 1936: The closing ceremony - Indian flag holder

Berlin 1936: The closing ceremony – Indian flag holder

The video archives of the International Olympic Museum contain reams of footage of the Games that captured them in every dimension—both on and off the field. In the IOC videos, Hitler and Nazi officials feature as prominently as the athletes themselves; Wehrmacht soldiers and disciplined rows of volunteers form the backdrop to what German officials wanted to be remembered as the greatest Games ever. Hitler removed signs stating ‘Jews not wanted’ and similar slogans from main tourist attractions.

Simultaneously, Berlin was ‘cleaned up’, the ministry of interior authorizing the chief of Berlin Police to arrest all gypsies and keep them in a special camp.[10] All in all, the German government was believed to have spent the then astronomical sum of about $30 million on an event that was meant to showcase the master Aryan race, as Hitler believed the Germans to be, as also to package the progressive and united face of Germany for a global audience.[11]

It was to these Games that Dhyan Chand’s hockey players and the rest of the Indian athletes, still a part of the British empire, now headed. Interestingly, when the Indians, twice Olympic champions, set sail from Bombay on what was perhaps the mission of their lives, there was scarcely anybody around to see the team off. As recounted by one of the team members:

Only the Bombay Customs players, Aslam, Feroze Khan, Jagat Singh and Brewin were with us, so were Behram Doctor and S.K. Mukherjee. The pier was crowded but none took notice of us world champions! Those of us who had been on tour before found this a new experience and not a pleasant one.[12]
The first part of the journey was rough due to turbulent seas and all the players, except C. Tapsell, E.J.C. Cullen and Assistant Manager Pankaj Gupta, were seasick. While most of them recovered in a few days, Joe Phillips and Babu Nimal from Bombay repeatedly requested the team management to send them back. By now the team was worried about this lack of practice. The Statesman correspondent accompanying the hockey players noted that they were used to practising on the deck but the rough seas precluded that possibility until the fifth day of the voyage when they played hockey for an hour. [13]

In fact, only when the boat docked at Aden were the Indians able to practice full throttle. In Aden, the Indians had four hours on shore and kept themselves busy. The seriousness with which the hockey players were approaching their title defence was apparent from the fact that even on this small break in their voyage all they wanted to do was play. Soon after arrival the visitors went looking for a hockey ground and found the regimental training field of the 5/14 Punjab Regiment, which was then stationed at Aden. Members of the regiment, who had no prior knowledge of the arrival of the Indian Olympic team, were puzzled but elated at suddenly seeing their countrymen. This episode was documented by one of the players in his diary:

We left the boat with hockey sticks in hope that some hockey field or a plot of ground might be available where we could stretch our limbs. We asked the bus driver to take us to a hockey ground and he took us to a sandy plot of land, level but full of pieces of bricks, which we afterwards found to be the regimental ground. [14]

Once the nets were put up, the Indians asked the officer present if the ground could be used for practice. An unnamed Indian player later recounted to a newspaper reporter that at first, ‘He hesitated but as soon as he discovered we were the All-India team and that Dhyan Chand was with us…he allowed us to play.'[15] The name of Dhyan Chand worked like a charm and once the regiment learnt of the team’s arrival the bugle was sounded; in five minutes the entire battalion came out of its barracks to watch the players. It was a surprise gift for them and many of the subedars and privates who knew Dhyan Chand were pleased to see him in Aden. They felt embarrassed because the Indians had come without prior notice and hastily tried to put together a civic reception for the world champions.

During their brief stay at Aden, the Indian hockey players also found time to watch a game of football and were amazed at the high standard and popularity of the sport. As an Indian player recalled: ‘A football match was being played on an adjoining ground and there were large crowds watching the game. I was surprised to see football popular in a desert and was more surprised to see the Arabs and Somalis play barefeet…The scouts from Calcutta instead of going to Quetta, Rangoon and Banglore would be well advised to come to Aden. I found four players good enough for any Calcutta team. Their dribbling and ball control were revelations to me.’ [16]

Getting Göring and Goebbels’ Autograph:
In the Heart of the Third Reich

For the Indian team, surviving as it was on a budget, the journey to Berlin was not the most comfortable. Having docked in Marseilles late on the night of 10 July, the Indians were to catch a connecting train to Paris en route to Berlin, but they missed the connection. As Dhyan Chand explained: ‘Dock workers there were on strike, and the passengers were put to great difficulty in getting their baggage through. It took us time to unload our luggage ourselves and get it through the Customs and other formalities, and the result was that we missed our train to Paris. We were lodged in an ordinary hotel in Marseilles for the night’. [17] It was only on the morning of 11 July that the Indians boarded a train for Paris. In Paris, as in Aden, not many were aware of their arrival and the players spent a quiet day, undisturbed by the city’s sports media. For some of them ‘this was fame with a vengeance’.[18] In sharp contrast to the luxuries afforded to many modern sportsmen, this team of Olympic champions arranged its own travel at the lowest cost. Dhyan Chand’s recollection of this journey was written in words that leap out of the mists of the past to stab at the heart. As he put it in his usual nonchalant way: ‘We took a night train to Berlin. It was a job even to secure the third class seats provided to us. The night was cold and there was no sleeping accommodation. Cheerfully we forgot all these comforts. We were on a mission for our country’.[19]

The Indians finally landed in Berlin on 13 July and were accorded a splendid welcome at Berlin station. They may not have received a send-off worthy of the Olympic champions in Bombay but in a Berlin striving hard to put its best step forward, they were received as heroes. Dr Diem, chairman of the organizing committee of the Berlin Olympiad, welcomed the Indians, his speech being relayed through a microphone to a large waiting crowd. In a reminder of the fact that they were playing on behalf of the British Indian empire, ‘God Save the King’ was played, and a band escorted the Indians to a bus, which drove through the streets of Berlin to the city hall, where the Mayor of Berlin welcomed the Indians according to established Olympic tradition. Each member of the team was presented with an album containing pictures of Berlin, and Dhyan Chand received a medal: [20] his celebrity status had preceded him.

By all accounts, the Third Reich pulled out all stops in welcoming the Indians. Here, in the heart of Britain’s greatest adversary, they were not just colonial subjects but honoured guests. After the welcome ceremony, the Indians were motored to the Olympic village 20 miles from the city. At the entrance to the village, the commandant in charge of security received the team. ‘God Save the King’ was played once again and the Union Jack with the star of India was hoisted next to the village gate. Eleven nations had already arrived and later the band members escorted the Indians to their cottage at the further end of the village. Unlike in 1932, when the team was quartered four men to a cottage, at Berlin the team stayed in one barrack containing 11 rooms and a common room. [21] This was five-star treatment by any standards. Dhyan Chand wrote: The cottage had 20 beds, a telephone and a refrigerator. Everything was kept spick and span, and every minute detail of our comforts had been attended to. Two stewards were there to look after us. One was Otto, an old-seasoned sailor who had visited India several times and spoke English well. The other was named Schmidt, and he spoke English haltingly. [22] In a reflection of the importance accorded to the Olympiad by the top brass of the Third Reich, the Games Village was often visited by top dignitaries. Hermann Göring, whose Air Force just four years later was to launch the London Blitz, and Joseph Goebbels, who had designed much of the propaganda around the Games, took personal interest. A bemused Dhyan Chand noted, ‘One day while we were in the dining hall, who should walk in but the burly Hermann Goering, clad in his military attire! We were after him in a trice to get his autograph. Later some of us obtained Dr. Goebbel’s autograph.’ [23] The Indians, it is evident from contemporary reports, were impressed with the arrangements and there was no grouse except on the question of distance.

But there was a hockey title to be defended. The day after they arrived in Berlin, the Indians went out to check the venue for the hockey competition. An unnamed player noticed the differences between the facilities at Los Angeles and Berlin: ‘The Olympic stadium here is a bit smaller than the American one. There is one advantage here—all the stadiums are located on one big plot of ground, whereas in America, barring the swimming and the main stadium, the others are quite apart.’ [24] The Indians also had to adjust to the weather. Writing to his family back home, an Indian player mentioned that the climate in Berlin was chilly and on days it rained consistently. A military officer had been appointed as the attaché of the Indian team and they were being well looked after. This was essential as the city was far away and the team was feeling a bit out of sorts because of the distance. [25]

A member of the Indian delegation and other participants

A member of the Indian delegation and other participants

‘The Shock of Defeat’:
They Could be Beaten

Dhyan Chand’s team had begun its tour preparations with a shock defeat to a local team in Delhi. Now in the first warm-up game on German soil, the team lost again. The Indians suffered a shock defeat against a German XI, losing 1–4. The Delhi defeat could have been dismissed as a one-off, but it had already planted the seeds of doubt in Dhyan Chand’s mind. This German blitzkrieg in Berlin was more serious and it served as a perfect wake-up call. The Indians now knew that they were not invincible and the Europeans had caught up. It retrospect, it served Dhyan Chand well because it led to a complete reappraisal of team strategy. Sixteen years later, the proud Indian captain wrote:

As long as I live, I shall never forget this match or get over the shock of defeat which still rankles in me. Hitler’s Germany had made great strides in their game…The result of the play shocked us so much that we could not sleep that night. Some of us even did not have our dinner. At night Pankaj Gupta, Jaffar and myself went into a conference, in which Jagannath also joined. We were unanimous that a substitute be obtained in place of Masood. That same night Gupta rushed to Berlin and sent a cable to Kunwar Sir Jagdish Prasad, president of the IHF, asking him to send Dara, failing whom Frank Wells or Eric Henderson, and also Pinniger. We decided that if Pinniger was not available, Cullen of Madras should be posted as center-half and not Masood. This we did until Dara arrived just a day before we played France in the semi-finals.’ [26] Dara was a Lance Naik stationed at Jhelum and was familiar as an inside forward with Dhyan Chand’s play. [27] Money was short but such was the urgency that the federation tried to arrange Dara’s passage by air so that he could reach Berlin before the Olympic matches began on 2 August. Despite the best efforts of the IHF, Dara had to wait in Karachi for nine days before he managed a seat in an aircraft. He left by Imperial Airways, entrained at Brindisi, reached Rome, rested there for a day and finally reached Berlin by air to play in the semi-final against France the next day. This was still considered quick work and the team thanked the federation for this admirable handling of Dara’s last-minute inclusion. [28]

The psychological impact of that early defeat was enormous and it set off a great deal of criticism. The Statesman, which had a correspondent covering the hockey team’s travails, now devoted an entire special report titled ‘Why SOS Cable was sent to India’. The dispatch from Berlin began with the following post-mortem:

Friends in India must have been startled by the cable which Professor Jagannath sent to the Indian Hockey Federation’s President suggesting that Pinniger and an inside right should be sent to Berlin by air. Why this was thought necessary was explained to me by Mr Gupta, the assistant manager. It was felt that the team had no regular inside right and when they met at Bombay, Dhyan Chand at once suggested to the manager that Frank Wells should have been included in the team as Wells had proved a good partner to him in New Zealand. At Bombay, it was felt that with Emmett as inside right the team might shape up well. [29]

That the Indians were aware of the onerous nature of the task at hand was borne out when Professor Jagannath declared in an interview that the standard of European hockey had improved considerably in the four years between 1932 and 1936. In the same interview, he sounded optimistic about India’s chances of defending the title they had won at Amsterdam in 1928 and defended easily at Los Angeles in 1932. ‘Our Indian team is a good blend of youth and experience and we shall do our best to maintain the high standard of Indian hockey. Dhyan Chand and R.J. Allen, center forward and goalkeeper, are the only members of the 1928 team, who have retained their places this year, but many of the others now with us were members of the 1932 team, which visited Europe after the Los Angeles Games.’ [30]

After the shock defeat in the first practice game, the Indians started playing every day but were still dissatisfied with some of their combinations. They went through rigorous physical drills in the morning and in the afternoon divided themselves into two sides to practice match situations for more than an hour. By now the players had settled down and the thinking was that there was no cause for alarm, with six practice games still to be played. Interestingly, these practice games were not played in front of spectators. They were played on private grounds and the media wasn’t permitted to cover these matches.

The teams were allowed to make as many changes as they liked and none of the matches had an official status. In the second practice game, the Indians were back on song and won comfortably. This performance was a major confidence booster, as evident from the following recollection, ‘Cullen played a very good game at center half and Jaffer was tried at inside right, where he was a success. If nobody arrives from India, I think Jaffer will be our inside right and Cullen centre half.’ [31]

That the locals too were warming up to the Indians once they started winning was evident after the practice game in Stettin, which the Indians won 5–1. Interestingly, Dhyan Chand refereed the game. The visit to Stettin, 100 miles from Berlin, reminded many in the team of their visit to New Zealand when swarms of autograph hunters never let the players out of sight. There were also a series of formal and informal functions organized by the locals to make the visitors feel at home.[32]

The shock defeat in the first practice game had prompted the team management to institute strict codes of discipline. As M.N. Masood writes, ‘It was also decided that every member should go to bed at ten in the evening. However, Mr Jagannath, Mr Gupta, Dhyan Chand and Gurcharan Singh went to see Menaka’s dancing the fourth day after this decision, and Mr Jagannath went again the following evening, returning at two in the morning.’ [33] Newspaper archives and contemporary reports of the period give no clue about the identity of the intriguing Ms Menaka but it’s clear that it wasn’t just all work for the Indians in Berlin; they were also having a good time. As Masood noted, ‘the senior members seldom went to bed at the fixed hour, and as the days passed, no restriction in regard to bed hours appeared to bind anyone until abruptly the following notice was seen on 28th July: “It has been observed that the members of the hockey team are not keeping regular hours. In the interest of sound training and physical fitness, it is essential to observe regularity in meals, physical training and rest…”‘ [34]
For many of India’s competitors in beating Dhyan Chand’s team would have been the greatest challenge. And it seemed that they would stop at nothing to make this possible. A controversy suddenly arose about the amateur status of the players and a question was raised with hockey’s international administrators about how India’s supposedly amateur players could stay away from work for so long to play hockey. Of course, every other participating country could have been asked the same question. Dhyan Chand narrated this distraction thus:

While we were in Berlin, a point was raised before the International Hockey Federation (FIH) that the Indian team was not composed of all amateurs. They posed the question: How could a player be away from his country and place of work for more than five months at a stretch if he is an amateur? Were the players being reimbursed for the pecuniary losses they were supposed to suffer? They gave the example of our 1935 six-month tour of New Zealand. We succeeded in convincing the authorities that the players were on leave with or without pay, and that the IHF did not reimburse us in any way except meeting our normal expenses. According to my information, Mr G.D. Sondhi was responsible for convincing the FIH gods about the bona fides of our players. [35]
The inimitable Mr Sondhi had worked his charm again.

‘Marriage Procession of Rich Hindu Gentleman’:
The Refusal to Salute Hitler

The Berlin Olympics were declared open on 1 August 1936. M.N. Masood, a member of the team, has left a minute-by-minute description of the opening ceremony that provides fascinating reading. It was nothing less than a grand spectacle of Hitler’s ‘thousand-year Reich’. The Wermacht, as we have already noted, was fully mobilized in setting up the support infrastructure and the competitors were transported to the venue in Army trucks. The Indians, with Dhyan Chand carrying the flag, were by far the most colourfully dressed of the contingents on show.

An Indian athlete puts his turban on, entertaining the Italian athletes around him

An Indian athlete puts his turban on, entertaining the Italian athletes around him

As Masood noted, ‘With our golden “kullahs” and light blue turbans, our contingent appeared as members of a marriage procession of some rich Hindu gentleman, rather than competitors in the Olympic Games’. [36] But this was no ordinary ‘marriage procession’—its members were about to make a huge political statement by becoming one of the only two contingents who refused to salute Adolf Hitler.

The opening ceremony of the Berlin Olympics was one of the great set-pieces of the Nazi era. As the giant Zeppelin, the Hindenberg, circled majestically over the stadium, Hitler and his Minister of Interior arrived amid great fanfare to inspect a military guard of honour. M.N. Masood noted the fervour that the Führer generated:

When the Führer neared the Stadium, a multitude of young boys who were watching the proceedings from outside, saw their idol approaching towards them. With one great cry, they shouted ‘Heil, Hitler!’ and broke the silence of the Maifield. [37]

In four years, that war cry would reverberate around the world but the lightening Panzer blitzkriegs and the horrors of the holocaust were still in the future. For the moment, at least some Indians were impressed by this disciplined spectacle of the resurgent Third Reich. As ‘the hundred thousand Germans in the Stadium stood to their feet and sang with one voice’ the two German national hymns, ‘Deutschland’ and ‘Horst Wessel-Lied’, Masood writes that it ‘made a strange impression’ upon the Indian contingent and ‘not an eye was left dry’.

India rose before our imagination…somehow the spring of our national feelings was touched, and the unity and solidarity of the people in the Stadium made us look with shame and regret at our poverty, destitution and discord. [38]

But nationalist aspiration was not the same thing as sympathy for the Nazi cause. What Masood does not mention in his elaborate description is the serious controversy the Indians created at the opening ceremony by not offering the raised-arm salute to Hitler during the march past. The Indians were the only contingent, apart from the Americans to, not perform the raised-arm salute as a mark of respect for the German Chancellor.

Loyalist newspapers like the Statesman focused more attention on the defiant US contingent, simply mentioning the Indian refusal to salute in passing. This was partly because of the dark cloud that hung over American participation in the days before the Games and the threat of boycott by some US athletes—Jewish athletes Milton Green and Norman Canners true to their word. The high-profile American contingent, remained uncertain whether its participation might be interpreted as support for the Nazi regime and its anti-Semitic policies, had barely made it to Berlin after a narrowly won vote orchestrated by sport administrator and future IOC President Avery Brundage. [39] But their contingent refused to dip its flag or ‘doff its headgear’ when passing the podium, eliciting ‘a certain amount of whistling from a section of the crowd’. [40] The Berlin Games was ultimately to be remembered for the exploits of the African-American athlete Jesse Owens whose triumph disproved Nazi theories of Aryan dominance. For most journalists, the Americans were the story of the Games but the Indian decision not to salute Hitler was a grand gesture of defiance, totally in sync with the tenets of the dominant stream of Indian nationalism and the Congress Party. This perhaps is why loyalist newspapers in India chose not to play it up. The Calcutta Statesman, reporting on the ceremony, chose to place its coverage of the Indian defiance on its political pages, as opposed to the sports pages where all Olympic news normally figured. [41]

Berlin 1936: A member of the Indian delegation

Berlin 1936: A member of the Indian delegation

It is significant that G.D. Sondhi, one of the officials accompanying the Indian contingent, was deeply influenced by Nehruvian ideas. In the late 1940s, inspired by Nehru’s internationalist ideals and the dream of pan-Asian unity, he was to single-handedly evolve and create the framework for the Asian Games (see Chapter 7). At a time when Britain was courting Hitler with its policy of appeasement—just two years later the prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, was to triumphantly declare ‘peace for our times’ after the Munich conference—the Indian decision not to salute the Führer, it seems, stemmed ideologically from the anti-Nazi posture taken by the Congress under Gandhi and Nehru. From the 1920s, the Congress had repeatedly expressed opposition to Britain in the event of a European war but regarded Fascism and Nazism as a form of Western imperialism.

In 1936, the same year as the Indians were marching in Berlin, Nehru told the Lucknow session of the Congress that ‘Capitalism in its difficulties took to Fascism’, and ‘fascism and imperialism… stood out as the two faces of the now decaying capitalism’.[42] It was as impossible for India to support Britain’s new opponents as it was to support Britain. From 1938 onwards, Gandhi began pointedly opposing Hitler in the pages of Harijan—at one point even sending him a letter to desist from violence. [43] In 1939, the Congress in its session at Tripuri resolved to ‘keep aloof from both imperialism and fascism’. [44]

There is no evidence in contemporary sources to show any direct linkages between the Congress and the athletes’ decision to not salute Hitler in Berlin. But the fact remains that it was a political act, breathtaking in its audacity, in direct opposition to most other contingents at the Games, including the British. Managers like Sondhi cannot but have been influenced by nationalist sentiment as articulated by the Congress leadership. The ‘marriage procession’ carried a bite.
It is significant that by the time the Games began, Indian fans at home were also fully geared for action. This is borne out by the increased sales of Phillips radio sets. The company had arranged for special coverage from Berlin, which was advertised thus:

At a time like this news cannot travel quickly enough and it is with great interest that we are able to report that special arrangements have been made for broadcast commentaries from the Berlin stadium…The world organization of Philips Radio with their two broadcasting stations are concentrating their resources for the benefit of Indian listeners. They have obtained information concerning these broadcasts and special plans have been made for reception of commentaries and eyewitness accounts from Berlin. Philips dealers in India’s leading cities will be able to supply details of the programmes and the times when transmission will take place…We would advise those readers without all wave sets or with obsolete models to go to a Philips dealer and hear the latest Philips all waves sets specially designed for reception in India…[45]

To flag off the special broadcasts, Philips had organized a talk titled ‘All About the Olympiad, Berlin 1936’ by Biren Roy, India’s representative at the World Municipal Congress in Berlin, on 31 July 1936. The talk was broadcast between 9.05 p.m. and 9.24 p.m. [46] This was among the first radio programmes in India at a time when the medium was just making inroads. Although the first Indian radio stations—opened by the privately owned Indian Broadcasting Company in 1927—had been commercial ventures, they had failed and were taken over by a reluctant colonial regime in 1930. Radio became a government department and the state assumed a monopoly over all broadcasting. [47] The nomenclature of All India Radio was adopted in 1936 and the Olympic programme with Biren Roy was a major highlight.

‘Not an Indian to Uphold the Name’:

The Failure in Other Sports

By the time the hockey team started its title defence, most Indian athletes had already fallen by the wayside. While Rahim could not make it to the final round of the shotput competition, Raonak Singh who competed in the 10,000 metres was a long way last from the start and dropped out at the end of 5,000 metres. Singh caused much amusement among the spectators because despite running last almost throughout, he retired at the end of 15 laps. G.P. Bhalla too failed to make it to the final of the 800 metres. He also finished last in the first heat of the 5,000 metres. In wrestling, the Indians, Rashid in the welter weight and Rasul in the middle weight, were eliminated in the first round. [48]
India’s poor showing was the subject of much scornful reporting back home. The correspondent for the Statesman was scathing: ‘There is the same old story to tell about Indian athletes and wrestlers at Olympic Games—failure and more failure. A wonderful country is ours, with a population of over 350 million and some of the finest specimens of manhood in the world. But our great country, with its vast resources, its princely patrons of sport and its wonderful climate cannot produce a single winner in the greatest of athletic festivals. Running, Walking, Swimming, Wrestling, Boxing, Rowing—the manliest of sports and not an Indian to uphold the name of his country’.[49] He went on to suggest that the Indians will have learnt a lesson from the failure at Berlin and will seriously settle down to think about the next Games at Tokyo in 1940. Winning the hockey title only isn’t enough. ‘Why should not India produce a winner in the marathon race in 1940?’ [50]

It is, however, naïve to blame the athletes for India’s disastrous showing in Berlin. The team management was equally to blame. One of India’s wrestlers, Karim, would have surely put up a creditable performance had he been allowed to fight in his own weight category. Instead, when he reached Berlin, instructions came from Sondhi that Karim must decrease his weight to appear in the welter weight class, with the result that for about 15 days his coach kept him in such strict training that he lost a good many pounds and became much weaker.

Berlin 1936: A member of the Indian delegation amongst other participants

Berlin 1936: A member of the Indian delegation amongst other participants

Despite Sondhi’s efforts, Karim could not get down to the desired class and one day before the actual competition he was told that he would have to compete in his usual weight category. He was too weak to perform and was knocked out in the first round. [51]

More shame awaited the Indians in the marathon. Swami finished 37th in 3 hours 11 minutes 47 4/10 seconds. By the end of the race he was so exhausted that he had to be removed to hospital where he needed to recuperate for the next two days. [52]

One interesting sidelight of the Indian performance at the Berlin Games was the exhibition of traditional Indian games on the Olympic stage. A party of 24 athletes from the Hanuman Vyayamprasarak Mandoli, Amroti, had sailed for Berlin on 9 July by the Conte Verde to exhibit Indian games and exercises. Interestingly, the team was composed of Harijans, Brahmins and Mohammedans. Its organizers wanted to display an India that had overcome caste and religious divides and the participants from diverse social strata were chosen with deliberate care. Their exhibition at Berlin is a fascinating but forgotten interlude in the interplay between Indian nationalism and Olympism. [53]

‘Past His Best Days’:

The Carping Critics And Dhyan Chand’s Title Defence

Hungary, 4–0

In a marked improvement from Los Angeles, 14 nations entered the Olympic hockey competition at Berlin. They were divided into three groups, which were as follows: Group I – India, USA, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Hungary; Group II – Germany, Afghanistan, Denmark, Japan; Group III – Holland, France, Belgium, Switzerland and Spain. It was announced that members of each group would play each other in a league format and India was slotted to open its campaign against the United States on 2 August.
However, with only four days to go for the Games, Czechoslovakia and Yugoslavia withdrew from the competition.

As both of these teams were in India’s group, the organizers had to redo the groupings yet again. Afghanistan was moved to Group I, and Spain was moved from Group III to Group II. According to the new format the winners of Group I were slotted to play the runners-up of Group III and the winners of Group II were due to play the winners of Group III in the semi-finals. [54] Even this grouping had to be changed when on the eve of the competition the Spaniards withdrew, citing political reasons. Eventually the Indians were left with USA, Japan and Hungary in Group I.

They started their campaign well, defeating Hungary 4–0. The Indians scored twice in each half. Roop Singh scored three goals and Mahmood Jaffer, playing in an unaccustomed position, got the remaining one. Though the win looked convincing on paper, the match demonstrated that the standard of hockey in Europe was much advanced. It was reported in the press back home that while the Indians were better than their opponents, their superiority was not as marked as on previous visits to Europe: [55]
Most disappointing was the revelation that Dhyan Chand, undoubtedly the world’s greatest center forward, is past his best days. He showed much skill with the stick and excellent judgment in combining with his brother but much of his wizardry has disappeared. He is now no better than any forward on the side. Indeed it is doubtful whether Roop Singh, his younger brother, is not now the cleverer player. [56]

The correspondent went on to lament that India’s display, startling enough for those seeing the team for the first time, was disappointing to the many who knew that India had many dozens of hockey players of international class. He concluded saying, ‘The 1936 side is considered weaker than the side that played several matches in Germany in 1932 and cannot be compared to the 1928 side, which won the Olympic tournament at Amsterdam.'[57]

From local reports on the game, it is evident that the only players who stood out were Roop Singh in the forward line and Tapsell at right back. The relatively mediocre performance of the Indians was partly ascribed to the poor weather conditions. It was a secondsession match and kick-off was at 6 p.m. local time. In fact, the game started ‘under a canopy of clouds and a cold icy wind was blowing across the ground’. Within five minutes of the start it began to rain heavily and continued to pour till half-time. Accordingly, the ground was very heavy and with thick grass on the field it was impossible to play quality hockey. The local papers were full of praise for the Hungarian goalkeeper who, it was argued, saved his team from a bigger defeat. [58]

Yet another match report, however, mentioned that the Indians had the game in their hands throughout. All through the match, the play was confined to the Hungarian 25-yard line. Allen, the Indian goalkeeper, did not touch the ball once. Only twice in each half did the Hungarians cross the Indian goal line.[59]

Poker game of Indian hockey players

Poker game of Indian hockey players

USA, 7–0

The Indians followed up the victory against Hungary by defeating the Americans 7–0. Roop Singh, Dhyan Chand and Jaffer each scored two goals while Cullen scored one. In this match the Indians did not play their strongest side and rested three of their key players for the more strenuous engagements to follow.
Even a 7–0 verdict failed to convince the scribes back home. The Statesman argued, ‘The fact remains, however, that at Los Angeles four years ago India defeated USA by more than 20 goals scoring when and how they liked. The US have improved since then but their improvement does not represent the difference between 1932 and 1936, which goes to confirm that Indian hockey has gone back in four years and that the present team is by no means as strong as the two previous Olympic teams’. [60]

The Indian team management also conceded that the US had made considerable strides in the four years since Los Angeles. This was especially noteworthy because the Americans had been playing hockey for only five years and there were only 10 professional clubs in the US. [61]

Even Dara’s arrival to reinforce the team did not evoke enthusiasm. It was suggested that he could only have a minor influence and it was foolish to think that he would be the difference between victory and defeat. [62]

Japan, 9–0

Journalists covering the Games also thought India’s hockey team was a victim of its own past exploits. Despite the huge margins of victory, journalists already foresaw a tough contest with Germany for Dhyan Chand’s team. The negative tone of the reporting did not abate even as the Indians beat Japan 9–0 to top Group I. ‘Germany has made tremendous strides and if the Indians are to win they will want to play even better than they did today, when they gave their best display up to date. Further they will need the same dry weather conditions as prevailed today. A record crowd of 16,000 including the Gaekwad and Maharani of Baroda watched the match.'[63] The video archives of the IOC contain fascinating pictures of the Indian princely entourage among the sea of German spectators, resplendent in saris and jewels.[64]

At the end of the group stage, the Statesman predicted:

Here’s a prophecy! We shall win the Olympic hockey championship again. If we are beaten, it will be by Germany, who have improved a hundred percent since we last met them. And if Germany win, it will be a lesson to India that she deserves, India has not improved a hundred percent—not on this team’s showing. Perhaps it is because she has not sent her best team this time. This is the impression I have gained from conversations I have had with Professor Jagannath, manager of the team and Mr. Gupta, the popular assistant manager. [65]

France, 10–0

It was only when the Indians trounced the French 10–0 in the semifinal that the tenor of reporting improved. The Statesman correspondent, for example, mentioned in his match report that the Indian display, which was their best until then, aroused great enthusiasm among the fans. ‘The Indians have become firm favourites for the championship. Germany, who will meet them in the final, have not the same speed and skill.’ [66] The local German press too, overtly critical of the Indians to start with and predicting a German gold in hockey, appeared restrained after the Indians trounced the French. This was reported in India with much glee. ‘The forwards who had never before combined so effectively played sparkling hockey and German newspapers, who were ruthlessly criticizing the Indians stating they had little chance of winning, at once changed their views and commented in glowing terms on India’s victory against the French.’ [67]

Barefoot Dhyan Chand and those ‘Flickering Sticks’:

The Hat-trick

Against all expectations of a resurgent German team challenging the Indians, Dhyan Chand and his team crushed Germany 8–1 to win their third consecutive Olympic Gold. Forced to swallow their dire predictions, the sports writers once again wrote flowery paens of praise. The title defence was narrated in great detail and was along expected lines. Three sub-headings in the Statesman summed up the mood of the match report: India’s Triumph, Science Scores Over Force, and Dhyan Chand in Form. [68]
The match report left little doubt about India’s overwhelming supremacy: ‘In the second half science triumphed over force and the skill of Indian forwards, assisted by a hardworking trio of halves brought goal after goal. The vast crowd rose as one man as the Indians made raid after raid, completely outwitting the home defence with their speed and stickwork and their uncanny accuracy of shooting.
Goal after Goal was scored to the bewilderment of the German side and though they played with their greatest pluck and gameness and managed to score once, they were a well beaten team.’ [69] It was in this game that Dhyan Chand truly came into his own in the Berlin Olympics. He had discarded his stockings and spiked shoes and wore rubber sole shoes, which increased his speed manifold. That he was at his best is borne out by the handsome scoreline of 8–1. Dhyan Chand himself scored six goals.
The German papers, which until now had been predicting a German gold, were full of praise for the Indians after the final. A correspondent for the Morning Post argued that Berlin would remember the Indian hockey team for long. ‘These players, it is said, glided over turf as if it is a skating rink and their flickering sticks had the Japanese, normally so agile, mesmerized.’ The reporter went on to conclude, ‘Nature seems to have endowed Indians with a special aptitude for hockey’. [70] The legend of Indian hockey and the game’s special affinity with the ‘Orient’ was embellished further. It is a tenet of Indian sporting folklore that Hitler personally met Dhyan Chand and offered him an officer’s commission in the Wermacht if only he would play for Germany. This story is almost certainly apocryphal because none of the contemporary sources mention this incident and neither does Dhyan Chand in his autobiography.

Closing ceremony: the Indian flag holder and the swiss Dr Paul Martin

Closing ceremony: the Indian flag holder and the swiss Dr Paul Martin

Soon after the victory, the Viceroy congratulated the team on its record-breaking performance. Interestingly, the German Consul General from India sent the following message to Sir Jagdish Prasad, president of the IHF, ‘Please accept my heartiest congratulations on India’s hockey team’s remarkable performance at the Berlin Olympic Games. World’s best team won the final’. [71] Georg Evers, president of the Deutsch Hockey Bund and the International Hockey Federation, congratulated Dhyan Chand on his team’s triumph: ‘You and your boys have done wonderfully to foster the game of hockey in our country. I hope that you will return to Indian with good impressions and with the same feeling of friendship to the German hockey players as we feel towards you…Tell them how much we all admired the skill and artful performance of the perfect hockey they have shown us’. [72] On their way back from Berlin, the Indian team stopped over in London. Lore has it that they met Douglas Jardine, already a star for his role in cricket’s Bodyline controversy. It was reported in the press back home that Jardine stopped his car and posed for a picture with Dhyan Chand and Roop Singh. The team sailed back to India in the streamer Strathmore. Travelling with the team was the Nawab of Pataudi, the Maharajkumar of Vizianagaram and the Governors of Bombay, Madras and Mysore.

Extremely disappointing, however, was the way the team was welcomed in India on its return. Just as it received no public send-off when embarking for Berlin, there was no public homecoming on their victorious return. Masood describes the event thus:

Bombay received us at the Ballard Pier with only two of its representatives—Mr. Behram Doctor of the Bombay Hockey Association and Mr. Mukherjee of the Bombay Olympic Association. At the railway stations in Germany, we had to be escorted by cordons of volunteers for fear of being squeezed in by enthusiasts…while in India, the land of our birth, we were welcomed by only two of her sons…Rain came in big drops as we were landing as a benevolent gesture of welcome from the heavens, and also showing the citizens of Bombay the state of our feelings of being neglected. [73]

Modern Indian hockey players, neglected and forgotten in the passions over cricket, would have empathized. While the reception, or rather the lack of it, accorded to the team on 29 September was shocking, the federation led by the president deserved praise for the way in which it helped prepare the team for Berlin. As in the previous Olympics, the IHF was severely constrained for funds. In April 1936, the federation had a little more than Rs 6,600 left in its coffers. It needed Rs 40,000 to send the team to Berlin. Its financial troubles were compounded when the inter-provincial trials at Calcutta did not yield much by way of gate sales. Despite this, by the end of May, the federation had raised Rs 35,000 by way of contributions from princes, private individuals and several provincial hockey associations. The Nizam of Hyderabad contributed Rs 5,000 and the Gaekwad of Baroda £ 200. [74] The president and office-bearers of the association also made personal contributions to make the trip possible. In fact, even when it was known that the federation would incur an additional expense of Rs 1,700 in sending Dara to reinforce the team, it did not flinch.


The 1936 Olympic campaign finally put to rest the question mark against India’s hockey supremacy. India had won all its matches in style, scoring 38 goals in the process and conceding only one. Dhyan Chand, once discriminated against for his inferior social status, had consolidated his position as the darling of the Western world. A statue of his was erected in Vienna. Another statue erected later in Delhi’s National Stadium remains the only sculpture dedicated to a hockey player in independent India. His six goals against the Germans in the final were no less an achievement than Jesse Owen’s four gold medals in track and field. As Gulu Ezekiel wrote, ‘While on the track Jesse Owens exploded the many myths of Aryan superiority, which the Nazi forces had carefully propounded, on the hockey field Dhyan Chand created magic.'[75] It was not without reason that the government of India issued a postage stamp in his honour and conferred on him one of India’s highest civilian distinctions, the Padma Bhushan, in 1956.

After Berlin 1936, there was little doubt that the Indians would once again start their title defence as favourites in Tokyo four years later. Tokyo had won the vote to stage the Games of the Twelfth Olympiad by a margin of 36–27 against Helsinki, a product of careful and calculated exertion of political influence on the members of the IOC. Eventually, however, the outbreak of World War II meant there would be no Olympic Games until 1948 in London. There, the Indian hockey players presented their countrymen with a befitting independence gift—yet another Olympic hockey gold, which was made sweeter by a 4–0 victory over England. To this dream run we turn in the next chapter.