Asian Games 2023 – 50 Days to Go. How it All Began, with the Delhi Games in 1951

Asian Games 1951 Opening Ceremony (Credit: OCA)

The end of the Second World War and the process of decolonization thereafter provided the opportunity for a truly pan-Asian Olympics-type event. India played a pivotal role in stitching together the new Asian Games. As Indian administrators went about creating the Asian Games Federation and the first Delhi Asiad of 1951, they were also driven by the idea of a resurgent independent India and the vision of a new world order: decolonized states, led by India, marching forward to take their rightful place. At the heart of the story of the Delhi Asiad was a desire for newly independent India to be noticed, the moment of arrival signified by an international event of Olympian proportions. The symbolism of Delhi being at the centre of a new Asian federation was central to this vision, perfectly in tune with the internationalist ideals of a newly independent India. Sport was to be a binding force in this new alignment of emerging nations.

Writing in 1959, Anthony de Mello, the main organizer of the 1951 Asiad, recounted the opening ceremony in words that merit repetition, “What was the greatest moment in Indian sport? There was never an occasion to beat that of March 4th, 1951. On that historic day for the sport of India—indeed for the sport of Asia, even the world—the first Asian Games were opened…It was Asia marching ever nearer to the great Olympic ideal of ‘Citius, Altius, Fortius’—faster, higher, stronger…. India—the ‘Big Brother of Asia’—had given the lead in this the finest sporting venture of the Orient.”

Just four years after independence, with hundreds of thousands of Partition refugees still camping in various parts of Delhi, India’s capital put together the first truly pan-Asian sporting event. It was a time of hope, of idealism. Energetic Punjabi refugees had already begun changing the face of Delhi, and of much of north India. Just two months earlier, India, with a new constitution, had become a republic. C Rajagopalchari had just replaced Lord Mountbatten as Governor General. Britain’s decision to quit had begun a domino effect in colonies across Asia and Africa, and Nehru was at the height of his powers. It is not too difficult to see why an Indian watching the parade of nations marching under the shadow of the majestic ramparts of Delhi’s Purana Qila, the Old Fort, would begin fancying his country as the new ‘Big Brother’ of Asia.

As de Mello put it: ‘The Games had been, at once, the beginning of one era and the end of another.’ The birth of the Asian Games is a fascinating interplay of the progress of Indian nationalism and the country’s ambitions of leadership in the post-colonial world. The idea of the Games itself was born at the Asian Relations conference held in Delhi on the eve of Indian independence in 1947. Attended by 21 countries, and officially organized by the Indian Council of World Affairs, this conclave of Asian countries was an important milestone in trying to forge an Asian coalition. It was at this conclave that GD Sondhi, who had organized the Western Asiatic Games, conceived the idea of an Asian Games Federation. He immediately wrote to the Maharaja of Patiala that they could take advantage of the presence of high-profile international delegates at the conference to build contacts and to sell the idea. Patiala agreed, and Sondhi then circulated a note explaining the objectives of the proposed federation to many of the delegates. Most of them expressed their approval, and some of them were very enthusiastic.

With the idea of the Asian Games approved, the gap between idealism and reality hit home. The first problem was domestic. Many in the IOA itself were loath to accept the responsibility of hosting an ambitious event of this nature. The IOA formally said yes at its annual meeting in Lucknow in 1948, but ‘did not take any further action on the matter’. There is no mention in the archival records of the IOA and the IOC about why the proposal was not taken forward, considering it had the backing of its president, the Maharaja of Patiala; its secretary, Sondhi; and no less a person than Nehru. But we can surmise that the problem was infighting within the IOA.

But the persistent Sondhi would not give up. He flew to London for the Olympics and used the gathering of international sports officials to try his luck again. On August 8, 1948, Sondhi managed to convene a meeting of most of the Asian representatives at the Mount Royal Hotel. He invited all the Asian teams in London, and senior officials representing the still-undivided Korea, China, Philippines, Burma and Ceylon made it for the meeting. Singapore, Lebanon, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and Syria stayed away. It was a clear reflection of the political divides within Asia. The managers at the Mount Royal meeting agreed to form the Asian Games Federation. They also agreed to award Delhi the first Asian Games, originally scheduled for 1950, as well as an invitation athletics meet in February 1949.

The invitation meet never materialized, but what did was another international conclave in Delhi to give final form to the Asian Games Federation. Eight countries eventually made it for the Delhi conclave on February 12-13, 1949 that finally gave birth to the Asian Games.

Nehru himself performed the opening ceremony at the spanking new National Stadium, in the presence of 30,000 cheering spectators. President Rajendra Prasad, the old nationalist, told the assembled audience that the Asian Games would only ‘promote the realization of understanding and friendship’ and ‘cement the ties between the peoples of Asia’.

De Mello felt the Games had done even more. “I believe that no event outside the field of sport has done more to further Asian unity than the Games at New Delhi…These Games, drawing together widely differing races and people from a great continent, were a perfect example of the power for good contained in sporting contests and the part it can play in making the world a finer place for our children and theirs to come.”

How valid were these sentiments? On the plus side, Afghanistan, Burma, Ceylon, Indonesia, Iran, Japan, Malaya, Philippines, Singapore and Thailand participated. On the negative side, Pakistan refused to attend. Vietnam was absent because of Indian’s refusal to accept its government. Syria and Iraq stayed away as well.

Yet, the Asian Games marked a new beginning in many ways. The Chinese, for instance, did not participate, but in a little known footnote of history, the People’s Republic sent 10 special observers as goodwill ambassadors. Crucially, they were the first official Chinese representatives to visit India after independence, and their presence was given due importance in Delhi, with the prime minister receiving them for breakfast at his own residence.  

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