In January this year, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) decided to prohibit “gestures of a political nature, like a hand gesture or kneeling” in the Tokyo Olympics (which will now be held in 2021). Those who break protest rules will face three rounds of disciplinary action by the IOC, the given sport’s governing body and their national Olympic association.
Their rationale for banning any sort of political gesture rests on the principle that “sport is neutral and must be separate from political, religious or any other type of interference”.
Whichever side of the fence one falls on, it’s nearly impossible to divorce sports from politics. From national teams refusing to tour South Africa during Apartheid, to National Football League (NFL) quarterback Colin Kaepernick taking the knee during the national anthem of the United States in 2016 to protest police brutality and racial injustice, politics has always found a platform in sports. This is particularly true of the Olympics.
One of the most iconic images in sports history was from the 1968 Mexico City Olympics when track athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised a clenched fist and bowed their heads during the playing of their national anthem with their medals around their necks. They were protesting against the rising atrocities and unfair treatment of African American citizens at the height of the civil rights movement in the U.S.
Similarly, in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, track athlete Jesse Owens upstaged Adolf Hitler by winning four gold medals and single-handedly crushing the “myth of Aryan supremacy”. And before Owens dominated the track, the American contingent made the news for not performing the raised-arm Sieg Heil salute for Hitler during the march past.
However, it wasn’t just the Americans who didn’t salute. The Indian contingent also made a serious political statement by not performing the salute to Hitler at the opening ceremony on 1 August, 1936.
Colourful Opening Ceremony
For Hitler and the Nazi regime, hosting the Olympics was a massive platform to project the government’s ideals of racial supremacy and anti-semitism with Jewish athletes either getting sidelined or boycotting it. With a giant Zeppelin, the Hindenburg, circling over the stadium, Hitler and his ministers arrived at the grand opening ceremony amid great fanfare.
In his detailed description of the opening ceremony, MN Masood, a member of the Indian Olympic contingent described the moment when Hitler was arriving at the Olympic stadium.
“When the Führer neared the Stadium, a multitude of young boys who were watching the proceedings from outside, saw their idol approaching towards them. With one great cry, they shouted ‘Heil, Hitler!’ and broke the silence of the Maifield,” he wrote.
The Indian contingent were transported to the stadium in army trucks. Dhyan Chand, the legendary hockey player, who carried the flag, and the rest of the contingent, according to Masood, were the most colourfully dressed.
“With our golden kullahs and light blue turbans, our contingent appeared as members of a marriage procession of some rich Hindu gentleman, rather than competitors in the Olympic Games,” wrote Masood. But when “the hundred thousand Germans in the Stadium stood to their feet and sang with one voice” their national songs – ‘Deutschland Uber Alles’ and ‘Horst Wessel-Lied’ – Masood spoke of how that created a really “strange impression” on the Indian contingent with “not an eye” left dry.
“India rose before our imagination … somehow the spring of our national feelings was touched, and the unity and solidarity of the people in the Stadium made us look with shame and regret at our poverty, destitution and discord,” he writes.
However, the nationalist aspirations within the hearts of atheletes in the Indian contingent did not mean in any way appreciating the Nazi cause.
In the words of Boria Majumdar and Nalin Mehta, who wrote Dreams of a Billion: India and the Olympic Games, “The Indian decision not to salute Hitler was a grand gesture of defiance, totally in sync with the tenets of the dominant stream of Indian nationalism and the Congress Party.” Opposition to the British did not mean that the Congress had any sympathy for fascism and Nazism, which the likes of Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi essentially saw as yet another product of Western Imperialism.
“It is significant that G.D. Sondhi, one of the officials accompanying the Indian contingent, was deeply influenced by Nehruvian ideas. In the late 1940s, inspired by Nehru’s internationalist ideals and the dream of pan-Asian unity, he was to single-handedly evolve and create the framework for the Asian Games,” write the authors.
Although there is no concrete evidence of a direct link between the position taken by athletes not to offer their salutations to Hitler and the position of the Congress party in opposing Nazism, “the fact remains that it was a political act, breath-taking in its audacity and in direct opposition to most other contingents at the Games, including the British”.
Many in India also tuned into their Phillips radio sets listening to the live commentary as events unfolded. The Indian contingent’s show of defiance against Hitler was capped off by the glorious 8-1 drubbing of the German team in the field hockey final.
Dhyan Chand helped India win the hockey gold medal through his mesmerising performance, particularly in the final with six goals. As noted sports write Gulu Ezekiel writes, “While on the track Jesse Owens exploded the many myths of Aryan superiority, which the Nazi forces had carefully propounded, on the hockey field Dhyan Chand created magic.”
In sports, more than ever, the personal becomes the political. Whatever the IOC’s reservations, the Olympics have always offered nations and athletes a platform to project their political and social opinions.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)