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Indian Olympic history: Early hockey dominance, a medal drought, a shooting and track star

From Paris 1900 to Tokyo 2020, India’s tryst with the Olympics spans over a hundred years - with the country enjoying its most successful Games in Tokyo.
By Rahul Venkat

Although India had a single representative in Paris in 1900, Tokyo 2020 will mark 100 years since India sent their first official contingent to an Olympics at the 1920 Antwerp Games.

A century of Olympic history is filled with a number of highs - such as a record eight gold medals in hockey, six of which were consecutive; KD Jadhav’s first individual Olympic medal for an independent India, Abhinav Bindra’s historic gold at Beijing 2008 and a first-ever track-and-field gold by Neeraj Chopra at Tokyo 2020.

There have also been some lows and a couple of heartbreaks along the way. Here’s a look at India’s Olympic history over the past century.

Pre-independence: Norman Pritchard and the first hockey hat-trick

India’s first brush with the Olympics came at the 1900 Paris Olympics - where Norman Pritchard was the country’s sole representative. He won two silver medals - in the 200m sprint and 200m hurdles.

The first multi-sport Olympic contingent for India came at the 1920 Antwerp Olympics - where five athletes (three in athletics and two wrestlers) took part.

At the 1924 Paris Olympics, India made their tennis debut. Five players (4 male and 1 female) played in the singles events. Two pairs played the men’s doubles and one in the mixed doubles.

The 1928 Amsterdam Olympics marked the beginning of Indian hockey’s magnificent run. 

The Indian men’s hockey team - led by the legendary Dhyan Chand - scored 29 goals and conceded none as they won their first Olympic gold medal.

They repeated the feat at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics and the 1936 Berlin Olympics to complete a memorable hat-trick and cement their status as the world’s most dominant hockey team. 

Post-independence: Triple hockey gold and a first individual medal

The Olympics were not held in 1940 and 1944 due to World War II and in 1947, India gained independence from the British. The 1948 London Olympics, hence, were India’s first Summer Games as an independent nation.

India then sent their largest contingent - 86 athletes across nine sports - for the 1948 Olympics and the Indian hockey team was the dominant force again, as it returned with its fourth Olympic gold medal and discovered a new star in Balbir Singh Sr.

The Indian hockey team would repeat its feat at the 1952 and 1956 Olympics.

The Indian football team also made its first international appearance at the 1948 London Games but lost in a close match to heavyweights France on their Olympics debut.

The 1952 Helsinki Olympics also saw another historic moment for India as wrestler KD Jadhav became the first Indian to win an individual Olympic medal, a bronze.

The Helsinki edition also saw Nilima Ghose emerge as the first woman from independent India to participate in the Olympics. Then just 17, She competed in 100m sprint and 80m hurdles.

At the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, the Indian football team fell short in the bronze medal playoff and finished fourth.

Indian hockey’s Olympic gold rush was briefly halted by Pakistan as they ended with silver at Rome 1960. The edition also saw the legendary Milkha Singh fall just short of an Olympic bronze medal in the 400m.

The Indian hockey team returned to the summit of Olympic hockey with its sixth gold at Tokyo 1964. 

The 1968 Mexico Olympics was the first time that the Indian hockey team finished outside the top two as it only managed bronze. India finished with a bronze yet again at the 1972 Munich Olympics. 

Indian hockey reached a nadir at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, finishing seventh, which was their then-worst finish at the Games. It was also the first time since 1924 that India were unable to win a single medal at the Olympics.

The hockey team regained some of its lost glory as they became Olympic champions at the 1980 Moscow Olympics.

80s barren run ends with Leander Paes’ bronze

India did not have a memorable time at the Olympics in the 1980s - as they could not win a single medal at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and the 1988 Seoul Olympics. The run extended into the 1992 Barcelona Olympics as well.

Legendary athlete PT Usha, however, came close to the podium - finishing a heartbreaking fourth in the 400m hurdles in 1984.

India’s medal drought was broken by tennis ace Leander Paes, who won bronze in the men’s singles event at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Four years later, weightlifter Karnam Malleswari rewrote history as she became the first Indian woman to win an Olympic medal with her bronze.

Leander Paes (right) won a bronze medal at Atlanta 1996.

Armyman Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore’s silver in the men’s trap at Athens 2004 was India’s first individual Olympic silver and first shooting medal.

2008 onwards: Bindra’s historic gold sparks revival

The 2008 Beijing Olympics was a watershed moment in Indian Olympic history as shooter Abhinav Bindra claimed the nation’s first individual gold in the 10m Air Rifle event.

Boxer Vijender Singh and wrestler Sushil Kumar also won bronze medals - ensuring that India won multiple medals at a single Games for the first time since 1952.

The 2012 London Olympics saw Saina Nehwal win India’s first Olympic medal in badminton.

Sushil Kumar bagged his second Olympic medal while Gagan Narang, Vijay Kumar, Mary Kom and Yogeshwar Dutt also won to take India’s medals tally for that edition to six - the country’s biggest haul at the Summer Games till date.

At Rio 2016, PV Sindhu and Sakshi Malik were India’s only medallists, the first time that the nation’s medal tally was made up of entirely female athletes.

Tokyo 2020 proved to be India’s most successful Olympics, as they returned with seven medals.

The Indian men’s hockey team broke its 41-year Olympic medal drought with a bronze and the women’s team recorded its best-ever finish of fourth.

The star of the campaign was undoubtedly Neeraj Chopra, who won India’s first track-and-field gold medal in the javelin throw. It was India’s first gold medal since Abhinav Bindra at Beijing 2008.

Neeraj Chopra’s gold came in India’s final event of Tokyo 2020 - ensuring a poetic end to the campaign.

Indian Olympic history: Results

India at the Olympics
Year Athletes Medals Position
1900 Paris 1 2 17
1920 Antwerp 5 - -
1924 Paris 13 - -
1928 Amsterdam 22 1 23
1932 Los Angeles 18 1 19
1936 Berlin 27 1 20
1948 London 86 1 22
1952 Helsinki 64 2 26
1956 Melbourne 59 1 24
1960 Rome 45 1 32
1964 Tokyo 53 1 24
1968 Mexico City 25 1 42
1972 Munich 46 1 43
1976 Montreal 26 - -
1980 Moscow 52 1 23
1984 Los Angeles 47 - -
1988 Seoul 43 - -
1992 Barcelona 46 - -
1996 Atlanta 40 1 71
2000 Sydney 44 1 71
2004 Athens 73 1 65
2008 Beijing 57 3 50
2012 London 83 6 55
2016 Rio de Janeiro 117 2 67
2020 Tokyo 126 7 48