Was he India's first Olympic hero?

The legacy of Pritchard continues to haunt Indian sport and his life remains the biggest mystery in the history of the Olympics.

GULU EZEKIEL

SEVENTY-FIVE years after his tragic death at the age of 54, the legacy of Olympian Norman Gilbert Pritchard continues to haunt Indian sport. Who was India's first Olympian? The first from Asia to win medals in athletics? And the first Indian, indeed the first Olympian to act in Hollywood movies? Remarkably they are all one and the same person — but the Pritchard enigma is one of the biggest mysteries in the history of the Olympics.

Pritchard (born in Calcutta on June 23, 1875) enjoyed a long career in the Hollywood silent era of the 1910s and 20s, acting alongside such screen legends as Ronald Colman, Clara Bow and Gary Cooper. But after decades of being an unsolved riddle, the key to the Pritchard mystery was unlocked by former Bengal Ranji Trophy captain Raju Mukherji, who unearthed Pritchard's stage and screen name while researching the Olympian's life and times with this writer.

Mukherji three years ago came across a review of Pritchard's most famous movie, Beau Geste (1926) in an old issue of the St. Xavier's School alumni magazine where it was mentioned that the boy who studied in that famous institution in 1891 had changed his name to Norman Trevor on entering Hollywood.

In his prime Pritchard was one of the world's leading athletes, winning silver medals in the 200 metres sprint and the discontinued 200 metres hurdles at Paris at the second modern Olympics to be staged following their revival at Athens in 1896.

Pritchard matched the best at Paris, even setting a world record in the second heat of the 200 metres hurdles which Alvin Kraenzlein would erase in the final for his fourth and final gold of the Games. The winning time in the final was 25.4 seconds with Pritchard second in 26.0.

The 200 metres was won by Walter Tewksbury in 22.2 seconds while Pritchard took silver in 22.8. He also reached the final of the 110 metres hurdles (failing to finish) and besides participated in the 60 metres and 100 metres sprints where he failed to reach the finals.

Pritchard was also an outstanding footballer and was joint honorary secretary of the Indian Football Association from 1900-05 as well as the scorer of the first hat-trick in an official football tournament in India. He moved permanently to England in February 1905.

The question though that has been nagging Olympic historians is whether he was representing Britain or India at the Paris Olympics.

India did not send an official contingent till the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, though an unofficial team was sent in 1920. The first team from independent India competed at the 1948 London Olympics.

So was Pritchard taking part as an Indian or a Briton? His parents George Peterson Pritchard, an accountant and his mother Helen Maynard Pritchard were indeed British. But for 100 years his two silver medals had been credited to India.

It has to be emphasised here that till 1908 participants entered the Olympics as individuals rather than as selected members of a national contingent. Indeed the records of the early Olympics are haphazard and have never been given official status by the International Olympic Committee.

The standard reference book for the Olympics is David Wallechinksy's The Complete Book of the Olympics, first published in 1984. Till the 1996 edition Wallechinsky credited the two silver medals won by Pritchard to India as had been the standard practice in all major reference books on the Olympics.

However, British historian Ian Buchanan came to the conclusion that Pritchard had represented Britain and published his findings in the January 2000 journal of the International Society of Olympic Historians (ISOH).

This prompted Wallechinsky to take the medals away from India and award them to Great Britain in his 2000 edition. It was Buchanan who in 1997 discovered Pritchard's date of birth from Thacker's Indian Directory (under the Bengal parish registrar) in London.

Wallechinsky however said: he had "an open mind" on the issue and in the 2004 edition of his book he jointly credited the medals to both Great Britain and India. Internet movie sites have the full listing of Pritchard's 27 movies (under his screen name of Norman Trevor), starting with After Dark in 1915 and ending with The Love Trap and Tonight at Twelve, both in 1929, the year of his death (of a brain malady) on October 30 in Norwalk (now a part of Los Angeles). He also had a long career on the stage in Broadway that in the 1920s was more popular than the silver screen.

Dr. Bill Mallon, former president of the ISOH traced references to Pritchard/Trevor from the New York press of the 1910s and 20s, including his obituary in the New York Times issue dated November 1, 1929.

"National representation at the earliest Olympics is controversial," according to Dr. Mallon, who also publishes a widely respected reference book on the Olympics. "But Norman Pritchard was a national of what was then called British India and I think his medals should be credited to India. This would make him the first Olympic medallist from India.

Though this has never been authenticated, legend has it that on arriving in Paris in 1900 from London where he had been competing in athletics meets, Pritchard told the organisers he would like to represent the land of his birth. This is perhaps why for 100 years his two medals were credited to India. At the height of his fame, Norman was one of the biggest names of the New York stage before concentrating on the new novelty to hit the US, talking movies.

A newspaper article dated February 18, 1917 recalls an incident that changed Pritchard's life. This piece also states that he shifted from Calcutta to the plantations of Assam at the age of 17 before coming to England with his father.

It was during a dinner in December 1906 in London (he had moved there a year earlier to trade in the jute market) in the company of his father that he was asked to describe the recent magnificent `durbar' staged in Delhi to welcome Lord Curzon as the new Viceroy of India.

So dramatic and vivid was his description of the incredible wealth and opulence on display that he was mistaken as an actor by one Sir Charles Wyndham. Sir Charles invited the young Norman to take up a bit role in a play. It was on the advice of Sir Charles that he decided to pay serious attention to his new found talent. This prompted him to eventually give up the jute business altogether and take up leading roles on the stage.

His final stage appearance was in `The Captive' in September, 1926. By then he had shifted his attention to the silver screen. But within three years his life came to an end under tragic circumstances as he spent his last few years in and out of mental asylums.

Are Pritchard's relatives still in the United States? His daughter Doris was single and in her 20s at the time of her father's death. It is not known if she married and had children. It would be fitting if the Indian Olympic Association took the lead in establishing his identity as India's first Olympic hero.