1936 Berlin Games: Dhyan Chand’s farewell Olympics

Dhyan Chand was told to fight on the front lines, but his commanding officer ordered him to return to the Olympics team and fight his battles for India on the hockey field, says his son Ashok Kumar.

The Indian Olympic hockey team photographed on arrival at the Berlin railway station on August 10, 1936. The Indian team was accorded a Nazi reception. Dhyan Chand is in a dark overcoat.   -  The Hindu Photo Library

The 1936 Berlin Olympics were among the most controversial sporting events of all time. “I heard so much from Babuji (Dhyan Chand) and in later years came to know the significance of the game. They have a special place in history and of course our family has so much to cherish. The third consecutive gold medal in hockey,” recalled hockey great Ashok Kumar.

For Ashok Kumar, the son of the legendary Dhyan Chand and one of the stars of India’s 1975 World Cup-winning team, the 1936 Olympics assume greater significance because, as he says, his father almost missed going to the Berlin Games, which gained notoriety for Adolf Hitler using the platform to showcase Nazi power.

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“I remember Babuji telling us that he was stopped from attending the Olympics camp by one of his senior officers. And my father, a strict disciplinarian, just followed his orders and reported for duty at the front. When the commanding officer spotted Babuji standing amidst the other soldiers, he asked him the reason for not being with the rest of his hockey colleagues. Babuji told him that he had been ordered to fight on the front lines, but the CO ordered him to return to the Olympics team and fight his battles for India on the hockey field,” said Ashok Kumar.

Dhyan Chand gives a fascinating account of his experience at Berlin. In his fabulous story of the 1936 Olympics, Guy Walters, in his book Berlin Games: How Hitler Stole the Olympic Dream, quotes Dhyan Chand on the experience at the Hindenburg House: “Every evening after dinner, we used to pass two hours in the house, with our sweat suits on or any other informal dress, cheering, clapping and joking. The Italians were the most noisy and none could beat them in this respect. A sight of a pretty girl dancing gracefully was always enough to rouse our Italian friends to the highest pitch of enjoyment, which sometimes appeared carried too far to our Eastern minds.”

On his first sight of Hitler, Dhyan Chand wrote: “He was clad in brown, an athletic figure, and trod the ground with a firm step. Occasionally he looked sideways, and his face was serious, but not stern.”

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India’s hockey campaign was led by Dhyan Chand, and Ashok Kumar recalled, “Those were tough times for everyone. The challenge at doing the best at Berlin also came from the prevailing political atmosphere in Germany then. Of course, the Indian team was well-prepared and the focus was clearly on making it three in a row.”

Ashok Kumar also recalled his father talking of a defeat at the hands of Germany in a practice match. “The Indians could not comprehend how they could lose to Germany.”

As Ashok Kumar said, he had heard the story of the final against Germany many times. The team knew that defeat was unacceptable. “I read there were more than 40,000 spectators for the final and the German hopes were high since they had beaten India in the practice match. The 8-1 margin was overwhelming and it was Babuji’s most special moment from the hockey field. India had won their third gold and what joy it had brought to the nation.”

It was Dhyan Chand’s farewell Olympics as World War II was to force a 12-year break in sporting activities around the world.

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