Seventy two years ago, a newly independent India ventured to hold the the first Asian Games in Delhi with meager resources.
Athletes from Asia have gathered in the Chinese city of Hangzhou where the People's Republic of China is hosting the 19th Asian Games.
The Asian Games which were originally due to be held in 2022 was postponed for a year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Asian Games will be crucial for those who aspire to participate in next year's Olympics in Paris.
There are 74 Paris 2024 Olympic quotas to be secured at these Asian Games: The Indian hockey team, for instance, will have to win a gold medal to ensure a berth for the Paris Olympiad.
Seventy two years ago, the dream of staging the first Asian Games came about when in 1951, India, a nation that had secured Independence barely four years earlier, ventured to hold the Asiad in Delhi with meager resources.
The first Asian Games were conducted largely because of the efforts of a handful of dedicated sports organisers like the then maharaja of Patiala, Yadvinder Singh, Anthony de Mello, Guru Dutt Sondhi and a band of grassroots-level workers like S S Dhawan, Mehar Chand Dhawan, S K Bhoot and others.
During the 1948 Olympics in London, Guru Dutt Sondhi, then a member of the International Olympic Committee, with the generous backing of the maharaja of Patiala, then the president of the Indian Olympic Association, took the opportunity to bring representatives of the Asian countries participating in the London Olympics and floated the idea of staging an Asian Games.
The die was cast with the formation of the Asian Games Federation. The five charter members forming the federation were Afghanistan, Burma (now Myanmar), India, Pakistan and the Philippines.
The decision was taken to organise the Asian Games at four year intervals since the inception of the Games in Delhi in February 1950.
Maharaja Yadavindra Singh, who also became president of the organising committee for the Games, sent a formal invitation to several Asian countries to participate in the 1950 Asian Games.
The staging of the first Asian Games stadium was postponed twice and finally, it was decided to hold it in March 1951.
Guru Dutt Sondhi, a professor and pioneer of launching the Olympic movement in India and in other Asian countries, was appointed director of the Asian Games organising committee. The burden of organising the first Asian Games with no infrastructure and funds fell on Professor Sondhi.
A much harassed Professor Sondhi resigned six months before the Asian Games were to begin.
Anthony Stanislaus de Mello, one of the founders of the Board of Control for Cricket in India, replaced Professor Sondhi as director of the Asian Games. He had a knack for organisation and had experience of handling difficult situations.
Tutu Dhawan, the son of Sheri Dhawan, de Mello's able lieutenant, was a toddler when the Asian Games were held in 1951. He has maintained all the information that his father Sheri and mother Parkash Dhawan kept that provide an authentic account of what it took to organise the first Asiad.
"There was no stadium in Delhi, no cinder track, no equipment, no funds. The Union government refused to provide any funds and the Indian Olympic Association had no moneym: says Tutu Dhawan.
"Mr de Mello managed to get a Rs 1 lakh loan from the NSCI (National Sports Club of India) of which he was one of the founders and chief executive. Mr de Mello, as my father told me, enjoyed good clout in Delhi's bureaucracy," Tutu adds.
"When the issue of billeting 1,000 athletes and setting up the Asiad Village arose, Mr de Mello went to the commander-in-chief of the Indian Army, General K M Cariappa, who lent two groups of army buildings which flanked the site of the National Stadium, the main venue.
"He entrusted the task of building the stadium to a British construction company which also built the swimming pool. It was built in just 300 days at a time when all the construction work was carried out manually," says Tutu Dhawan who has an enormous collection of photographs of the first Asiad.
An international event like the Asian Games requires not only infrastructure, but also sports equipment for track and field, swimming, and other events.
De Mello rushed to London to negotiate with a firm called Lilywhites to provide the equipment. The firm agreed to provide some of the equipment that it had produced for the 1952 Olympic Games in Helsinki.
This equipment arrived before March 1951. The filtration unit for the swimming pool was provided by another British firm, which also trained the staff to operate it.
As this was the first big international event India was staging, the new government headed by Jawaharlal Nehru was very concerned about the organisational aspect.
Anthony de Mello knew the potential of Sheri Dhawan, a railway officer who had impressed him when a meeting was called in Bombay to discuss the feasibility of organising the Asian Games in Delhi.
Dhawan was a sportsman in his youth in Lahore. He and his charming wife Parkash opened an office in a cramped building.
While Sheri would do the organisational work, Prakash would handle the office.
It was realised that without the active support of the government and influential people, the efforts would not be blessed with any success.
A strong organising committee was formed with then President Rajendra Prasad as the chief patron. Nehru and Vallabhbhai Patel were the patrons.
Various committees were formed that had General Cariappa, Sir Girija Shankar Bajpai, the nawab of Pataudi senior, the maharajkumar of Vizianagram 'Vizzy', several Indian Civil Service officers like R K Menon, Sir Shankar Prasad, Dr Tara Chand, Sir Krishna Prasad, Sir Usha Nath Sen and other dignitaries like Sir Biren Mukherjee, Sir Sobha Singh, Naval Tata, J R D Tata.
Director de Mello and Organising Secretary Sheri Dhawan were members of all the committees.
In his memoirs, de Mello wrote, 'In six months I had to do a job which might normally span four years. A meeting was called in Bombay to discuss the organisational aspects. There were no funds and nobody had any clue as to how to raise funds when S S Dhawan 'Sheri' jumped to his feet and offered to raise Rs one lakh for the games, it was a big sum in those days.'
'When Dhawan offered to raise the sum his brother Olympian M C Dhawan, who was the secretary of the Athletic Association of India and others were taken aback. But Sheri Dhawan's courageous offer put new hope into the sagging spirit of the organising secretary,' de Mello recalled.
De Mello then urged the NSCI executive committee to offer a loan of Rs one lakh to the IOA for staging the Asiad.
The loan was granted and these were the only funds that the organizers had as there was no support from the government.
NSCI also helped build the swimming pool, stadium and also in importing equipment.
The main stadium and the venue of the opening ceremony, athletics, cycling and football was the Irwin amphitheatre, a multipurpose sport complex named after an earlier viceroy, was renamed the National Stadium. It is now called the Dhyan Chand Stadium.
"As the preparations were agog for holding the Asian Games, the Union government realised the importance of the event. But the resource crunch was killing," informs Tutu Dhawan.
Both de Mello and Sheri Dhawan spent sleepless nights as the day of the inauguration approached. Sheri asked de Mello to meet Nehru and ask for government funding.
"Nehru, after much thought, allowed Rs 10 lakh from the Prime Minister's Fund for the Asian Games. It was like hitting a jackpot then," says Tutu.
"Barring swimming and waterpolo all other events were organised in the National Stadium. The funds granted by Pandit Nehru helped in building the infrastructure. A month before the opening of the Games in March, sixty percent of the job was done and when the Asian Games opened everything was complete."
"My father and mother would leave me in the care of my grandparents and would return only late in the evening and would start work very early the next morning. Such was the dedication and commitment to make the Asian Games a success," adds Tutu Dhawan.
The technical aspect was supervised by Mehar Chand Dhawan, the sports teacher at Ajmer's Mayo College.
Dhawan, whorepresented India at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, was also the secretary of the Athletics Federation of India.
Pakistan, who was among the founders of the Asian Games, declined to participate because of the Kashmir conflict. China, who was invited, did not respond.
The Games featured six sports: athletics; aquatics -- broken into diving, swimming, and water polo; basketball; cycling -- road cycling and track cycling; football and weightlifting.
Japan sent a 72-member team, the second largest after the host, and participated in all except aquatics events.
Burma and India participated in all the events.
Iran participated in all events, but did not send any female athletes.
Ceylon, the Philippines, Afghanistan, Nepal, Singapore and Thailand were the other participants at the Games.
The sports were broken down into 57 events. Due to various reasons, boxing and hockey did not make the final list for the Games.
Except for athletics, women did not participate in any other event.
'Mr. Asia 1951' was also a non-medal event at the Asian Games. The contingents were judged based on their physical development, looks and personality. Parimal Roy of India won the event.
The opening ceremony where Dr Rajendra Prasad was the chief guest saw some 40,000 spectators. A 31-gun salute was fired from the ramparts of the Purana Quila.
Nehru spoke and a line from his speech -- 'Play the game, in the spirit of the game' was adopted as the official motto of the Games.
The lighting of the cauldron was performed by 1924 Olympian Brigadier Dalip Singh with the help of the Asian Games torch, which had been lit by the sun's rays in the Red Fort.
Afterward, Baldev Singh, a member of the Indian athletics squad, recited the athlete's oath on behalf of all competitors at the Games.
Athletics was the only sport in which all eleven countries participated.
The Games featured 24 medal events for men and 9 for women.
Japanese women won all the 9 golds of their events and just lost four silvers to India and Singapore, two for each.
In men's events, again Japan achieved the highest number of golds with a count of 11, but here Indian athletes finished just one medal behind Japan with 10 golds.
Toyoko Yoshino, a Japanese woman athlete, won all the golds in the shot put, discus and javelin.
Lavy Pinto of India was the only man who won multiple gold medals. He finished at the top podium in the men's 100 metres and 200 metres events.
India won the football gold, defeating Iran 1-0 in the final.
A total of 169 medals (57 gold, 57 silver and 55 bronze) were awarded.
The number of bronze medals is less than the total number of gold or silver medals because bronze medals were not awarded in water polo and the team pursuit event of track cycling.
Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/Rediff.com