On 15 October 2017, India’s first Olympian swimmer, Mehboob Shamsher Khan, died of a cardiac stroke at his native village of Kythapalli in Guntur district of Andhra Pradesh.
In 1956, Khan had become a national hero for finishing in the 5th place in the Melbourne Summer Olympics. Before that, he had also set national records in all four swimming strokes as well as in water polo and diving, making him the only Indian to do so.
While the victories of his contemporaries (like Milkha Singh) were recognised and remembered by the entire country, Khan’s remarkable feat languishes in anonymity. Here’s the untold story of this ace athlete.
Shamsher Khan was just 16-years-old when he was recruited into the Indian Army in 1946. Inducted into Bangalore’s Madras Engineer Group, he would go on to serve in two crucial battles, against China in 1962 and Pakistan in 1973. It was during his time with the army that his innate talent as a swimmer found the right platform to showcase itself.
It was during his time with the army that his innate talent as a swimmer found the right platform to showcase itself.
Khan had learnt swimming as a young boy when he would accompany his family’s buffaloes to the village pond. However, he received formal training only after he joined the army. In 1949, he made quite a splash when he competed in his first swimming tournament at Mysore. From there, there was no looking back for him.
In 1949, he made quite a splash when he competed in his first swimming tournament at Mysore. From there, there was no looking back for him.
In 1954, Khan set the national record for the 200-metre butterfly event. The following year, he swept all records at the national meet in Bangalore, earning himself a ticket to the 1956 Melbourne Olympics.
Interestingly, Indian government sponsored just the airfare to Melbourne. So Khan had to secure a loan of Rs.300 from Army to meet his food and other costs during the Olympics.
“In those days, my salary was just Rs.56 and the Army deducted the entire Rs.300 from my salary after my return from Olympics. All the same, I am thankful to the government for allowing me to be a part of such a glorious event,” Khan recalled in one of his last interviews with Times of India.
At Melbourne, Khan participated in both the 200-meter butterfly and 200-meter breaststroke events, securing the 5th position in the qualifiers. This was, and still is, a remarkable achievement, one that is yet to be repeated by another Indian swimmer.
In fact, no Indian swimmer has ever ranked as high as Khan did at the Olympics, despite the vast improvement in infrastructure and coaching facilities in the last six decades.
After returning, Khan wanted to train even harder for the next Olympics, but a severe financial crunch prevented him from doing so. He continued to serve in the Army till he retired in 1973 (after nearly 24 years of service) as a subedar.
After retirement, Khan returned to his native village of Kythapalli where he settled with his wife and five children. Time passed, and his incredible feat was forgotten by both the people and the government.
The Olympic veteran never fought for the recognition and assistance due to him, even when he developed hearing impairments and severe heart problems. Left to fend for himself with little or no help coming their way, the humble man lived a life of penury till his death.
With India witnessing a much-needed revival of sporting culture, it’s time that we, as a country, take care of our sports veterans. There could be no better way to celebrate the memory of the champion swimmer who once made India so proud.