Looking back at the first Asian Games in New Delhi in 1951

Both China and Pakistan gave the first Asian Games a miss as India hosted the first Games with Pandit Nehru calling upon athletes to ‘play the game in the spirit of the game’

The Indian contingent marches past in the Opening of theFirst Asian Games 1951 (Photo Courtesy: Sports Authority of India)
The Indian contingent marches past in the Opening of theFirst Asian Games 1951 (Photo Courtesy: Sports Authority of India)

Prakash Bhandari

As the 19th Asian Games formally opens this evening (September 23) in Hangzhou, the People’s Republic of China, veterans in India nostalgically recalled the first Asian Games held in New Delhi in 1951.

The Asian Games 2023 opening ceremony will be streamed live via SonyLiv. Viewers can tune in to the live telecast on Sony Sports Ten 2 SD & HD and Sony Sports Ten 3 SD & HD (Hindi) TV channels. Viewers can tune in at 5:30 PM (India time) to catch the live-stream of this highly-anticipated event.

The idea of the Asian Games had begun forming at the London Olympic Games, 1948. Guru Dutt Sondhi, a known promoter of sports in undivided Punjab and a member of the International Olympic Committee is credited with the idea. With the backing of the Maharaja of Patiala, he brought representatives of Asian countries together and informed of the idea of holding an Asian Games on the lines of the Olympic Games.

The formation of Asian Games Federation (AGF) paved the way for the first Asian Games and it was decided to hold it every four years. India offered to host the first Games. The five charter members were Afghanistan, Burma (now Myanmar), India, Pakistan, and the Philippines.

The Indian Olympic Association offered to host the first Asian Games without the permission of the government since it was the National Olympic Association which those days had the responsibility of managing sports events. Maharaja Yadavindra Singh, the president of the organising committee issued the formal invitations to other Asian countries.

The organising committee soon realised that it did not have the funds required to host the Games. The Games was postponed twice and then it was decided to hold it in March, 1951. But harassed by the burden of hosting the Games without funds or infrastructure, GS Sondhi resigned from the organising committee six months before the Games.

Anthony de Mellow, one of the founders of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), replaced Sondhi. De Mellow and Sheri Dhawan, who had worked for the Railways and had some experience in organising sports events, set about repairing the damage. Dhawan’s wife Parkash took the responsibility to build an office from scratch. “There was no stadium in Delhi in those days, no cinder track, no equipment, no funds. The union government refused to help and the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) had no money,” recalled De Mellow. He however managed to get Rupees one lakh as loan from the National Sports Club of India (NSCI) of which he was one of the founders.

“When the issue of billeting 1000 athletes and setting up the Asiad village came up, de Mellow went to Commander-In-Chief of the Indian Army Gen K M Cariappa, who lent two groups of Army buildings which flanked the site of the National Stadium, the main venue,” recalls Tutu Dhawan, son of Sheri Dhawan, the organising secretary of the first Asian games. Without the help of the government and influential people, it was getting difficult to move. Thus, the organising committee was reconstituted with President Rajendra Prasad as the chief patron and Pandit Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel as the patrons. Various other committees had Gen K M Cariappa, Sir Girija Shankar Bajpai, Nawab of Pataudi Sr, Maharajkumar of Vizianagram alias “Vizzy”, ICS officers like R K Menon, Sir Shankar Prasad and other dignitaries like industrialists and business leaders like Sir Biren Mukherjee, Sir Sobha Singh, Naval Tata and JRD Tata.

“It meant that in six months, I had to do a job which might normally have spanned a period of four years,” wrote de mellow in his memoir. SS Dhawan “Sheri” offered to raise Rs one lakh for the Games. The loan from the NSCI was the only other fund available. NSCI in fact helped in building the swimming pool, the stadium and also helped in importing equipment.

The main stadium and the venue of the opening ceremony, athletics, cycling, and football was Irwin Amphitheatre, a multipurpose sports complex named after the Viceroy, which was rechristened National Stadium and now is known as Dhyan Chand Stadium in New Delhi.

Prime Minister Nehru eventually sanctioned Rs 10 lakh from the Prime Minister’s Fund for the Asian Games. The fund helped in building the infrastructure.

Pakistan, one of the founding members of the Asian Games Federation declined to participate because of the Kashmir conflict and China did not respond to the invitation. Japan sent a 72-member strong team. Iran participated in all the events but did not send any female athlete.

The opening ceremony where Dr Rajendra Prasad was the Chief Guest was witnessed by some 40,000 spectators and a 31-gun salute was fired from the ramparts of Delhi’s Purana Quila. In his speech, Pandit Nehru said, "play the game, in the spirit of the game"… which became the official motif.

The Games featured 24 medal events for men and 9 for women. Japanese women won all the nine golds. Japanese men also won the highest number of 11 golds while Indian athletes finished with 10 golds. India won the football gold defeating Iran 1-0 in the final.

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Published: 23 Sep 2023, 1:39 PM