India at the 1948 Olympic Games in London (Image from Wikimedia Commons)
India at the 1948 Olympic Games in London (Image from Wikimedia Commons)

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This article is a two-part series on India’s participation in the previous Olympic games and the upcoming Olympic games. 

Like millions of others, I am eagerly looking forward to the resumption of the 2020 Olympics after an unfortunate postponement from last year due to Covid-19. It starts on July 23, 2021, in Tokyo, Japan a rare break from the quadrennial routine. Only thrice earlier (1916, 1940, and 1944) were the Games canceled and it was due to the two World Wars. 

The Modern Olympics, a brainchild of the Frenchman Baron Pierre de Coubertin, was inaugurated in Athens, Greece in 1896. The Baron was surely fired up by grandiose visions of reviving the Ancient Olympics in Greece which had come to an end in 393 AD. The venue of Athens was appropriately chosen to remind all about this ancient heritage.

The Olympic Games, which has grown into a mammoth sports spectacle, had rather humble beginnings. In the First Olympics, there were only nine sports: Athletics, Cycling, Fencing, Gymnastics, Shooting, Swimming, Tennis, Wrestling, and Weightlifting. Fourteen countries were listed (some with one competitor.). Greece had a large contingent (169), followed by France, United States, Great Britain, and Germany. In 2016, there were 11,000 competitors from 107 countries. Presently, the total number of sports stands at 28.

India, as a nation, first made its appearance in the Olympics in Antwerp in 1920*.  They sent 6 competitors: four athletes and two wrestlers. Since then, India has sent teams to all the following Olympics. It has been a particular attraction to see the Indian team march during the opening ceremonies along with all the other countries. The men in turbans and the women in sarees are a joy to watch. In 2021, India will send its largest-ever contingent of 69 men and 55 women who will compete in 18 sports, including Men’s and Women’s Field hockey and Rifle Shooting. 

*In the 1900 Paris Olympics, Norman Pritchard, a British resident of Calcutta, won two silver medals in Track and Field (200 meters and 200-meter hurdles).

India has won a total of 28 medals over the years. Its crowning glory has undoubtedly been in Field Hockey, where it won 11 medals (including 8 golds).  Its last medal was a gold in 1980.

List of Olympic Medals Won By India

Medalists at the 2012 Summer Olympics. Left to right: Sushil Kumar (silver), Akzhurek Tanatarov (bronze), Tatsuhiro Yonemitsu (gold) and Liván López (bronze). (Image by Akira Kouchiyama on Flickr and under Creative Commons License 2.0)

Field Hockey: 11 (Gold: 1928 – 1936, 1948 – 1956, 1964, 1980;  Silver: 1960; Bronze:  1968, 1972) 

Freestyle Wrestling: 5 ( Silver: Sushil Kumar, 66 kg, 2012;  Bronze: K. D. Jadhav, Bantamweight, 1952; Sushil Kumar, 66 kg, 2008; Yogeshwar Dutt, 60 kg 2012; Sakshi Malik, Women’s 58 kg, 2016)

Shooting: 4 (Gold: Abhinav Bindra, Men’s 10m Rifle, 2008; Silver: Rajyavardhan Rathore, Men’s Double Trap, 2004; Vijay Kumar, Men’s 25 Rapid Fire Pistol, 2012; Bronze: Gagan Narang, Men’s 10m Air Rifle, 2012)

Track and Field: 2 (Silver: Norman Pritchard, 200 meters and 200 meters hurdles, 1900)

Badminton: 2 (Silver: PV Sindhu, Women’s Singles, 2016; Bronze: Saina Nehwal, Women’s Singles 2012)

Tennis: 1 (Bronze: Leander Paes, Men’s Singles, 1996)

Weightlifting: 1 (Bronze: Karnam Malleswari, Women’s 69kg, 2000)

Boxing: 2 (Bronze: Vijender Singh, Middleweight, 2008; Mary Kom, Women’s Flyweight, 2012)

I have also presented below a list of competitive competitors, in my opinion, but did not win a medal. They are often separated by inches, milliseconds, or the third places of decimals and on a given day, they may have made it to the podium.  

List of Individual Athletes Who Were Competitive But Did Not Win a Medal

Track and Field: Milkha Singh (4th in 400m, 1960); Gurbhachan Singh Randhawa (5th in 110m Hurdles, 1964);  Sriram Singh (7th  in 800m, 1976); Shivnath Singh (11th in Marathon, 1976); PT Usha (4th by one-hundredth of a second in Women’s 400m Hurdles in 1984);  Anju George (5th in Long Jump, 2000); Krishna Punia (6th in Women’s Discus Throw, 2012); Vikas Gowda (8th in Men’s Discus Throw,  2012); Lalitha Babbar (10th in Women’s 3000m Steeplechase, 2016).  

Women’ Gymnastics: Dipa Karmakar (4th in Vault, 2016)

Tennis: Sania Mirza (4th in Mixed Doubles, 2016); 

Shooting: Abhinav Bindra (4th in Men’s 10m Rifle, 2016)

Notable near misses — much-heralded fourth-place finish by the recently deceased Milkha Singh in 400m in Rome, PT Usha missing the bronze by one-hundredth of a second in the 1984 Olympics in Women’s 400m Hurdles, and Dipa Karmakar’s nearest of misses after landing the legendary Produnova Vaul — will forever be etched the memories of all Indian Olympic aficionados.

I do not recall anyone in men’s or women’s swimming making the grade, but I am aware of several wrestlers who came close to medals in the 1960s or 1970s. 

As for team sports, apart from our legendary run in Field Hockey, the only competitive team may have been the 1956 football team which finished fourth; this was back when Olympic football was still strictly limited to amateurs. 

Read the second part of this story! Other Indian Olympic candidates to look out for: Deepika Kumari and Bajrang Punia.

Partha Sircar has a BE in Civil Engineering from Bengal Engineering College in Shibpur, India, and a Ph.D. in Geotechnical Engineering from the University of California at Berkeley. He is a 53-year resident of the United States, including the last 36 years in California. He has worked in several engineering organizations over the years and is now retired for over eight years. He loves to write and can be reached by e-mail at

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