The modern Olympic games began in 1896, and India did not have any representatives at those games. However, four years later, at the 1900 Paris games, India landed not one, but two silver medals, thanks to efforts of Norman Pritchard.
Norman Pritchard was born in Calcutta on the 23rd of June, 1875. Pritchard studied at St. Xavier’s College, and won the Bengal province 100 yards sprint title seven times in a row between 1894 and 1900, while also setting a meet record on the 18th of February, 1898. Norman’s timing of approximately 9.8 seconds ( official records were not maintained in those days ) was considered to be in the range of the world’s best sprinters at the time. Pritchard was an all – round athlete, who scored the first hattrick in Indian football for St. Xavier’s against Sovabazar in 1897. He also excelled at Rugby. It is also important to note that Norman was involved in Indian football both as a player as well as an administrator.
Norman travelled to England in 1900 while working for Trading company Bird & Co. Although the reason for his exact visit has not been confirmed, his growing reputation as an athlete and being in the right place at the right time ensured that he was invited by the British authorities. On June 12, 1900, he was elected as a member of the elite London Athletic Club. The very next day, he won the Club’s Challenge Cup for 440 yards.
Two weeks later, he competed at the same club’s events, and was the winner in the 100 yards and 120 – yard hurdles categories, even beating the 1897 British AAA champion in the latter one of those races. The following weekend, he competed at the AAA ( Amateur Athletics Association ) Championships, which was a trial for the Olympics. Since he was the runner – up in the 120m hurdles race, he qualified for the Games.
At the 1900 games, while competing for Colonial India under the British rule, he became the first India – born Olympian ever at the Olympics. He competed in five events. In the 60m and 100m sprints, he tried his best but failed to qualify for the finals. He did reach the finals of the 110 metres hurdles, but he only managed to take the 5th spot. However, he succeeded in the 200m finals, finishing second, and in the 200m hurdles finals, he landed another silver, finishing only behind Alvin Kraenzlein, who is regarded as the ‘ father of the modern hurdling technique ‘. In the process, he became the first Asian to win medals at the Olympics.
Following his Olympic wins, Norman became the secretary of the Indian football association from 1900 to 1902. He then relocated to England in 1905, and eventually moved to the United States to pursue a career in acting. He began his London stage career in 1907, and his Broadway debut in 1914. He went on to act in 26 plays and 27 silent movies, and became the first Olympian to do so.
On October 31st, 1929, he unfortunately passed away due to a brain malady while living Los Angeles, and he died penniless. His wife and child too had left him by then, and had returned to India.
There has been a debate regarding Norman’s nationality. Olympic Games scholar David Wallechinsky in his book titled as ‘ The Complete Book of Olympics ‘ has accredited Norman with dual nationality, as he was undecided about Pritchard’s nationality. Ian Buchanan, in the ‘ Journal of Olympic History ‘ suggests that he was a British colonial resident in India, who was chosen to represent Great Britain at the Olympics. However, Gulu Ezekiel, one of India’s best sports historians, and Raju Mukerji, a former cricket player and coach, argue that Pritchard was a resident of India from his birth in 1875 until 1913, and when he won the medals in 1900, he was Indian by birth and residence. Moreover, even the International Olympic Association recognizes him as an Indian, and have credited the medals to India.
It took another 28 years for an Asian to land a medal at the Olympics. But Norman Pritchard paved the way and showed the world that a person born and living in Asia could dominate in a field which had an advantage over him , thanks to training in Europe’s greater conditions and possessing better resources. While Milkha Singh and PT Usha came extremely close to winning medals in athletics over the next century, Norman records stand tall above the rest. Here’s hoping that his feats are emulated by the Indian athletes in the coming Games at Tokyo 2021.