For a long time, India’s only consistent medal returns at the Olympics came courtesy the Indian hockey team. In recent years, the Indian shooting and wrestling contingents have taken over that mantle.
India is slowly building towards increasing its Olympic medal cabinet, sending bigger contingents with each passing Games and with 74 athletes already qualified for the Tokyo Olympics next year, the nation is primed to go past its 117-strong contingent at Rio 2016, its biggest-ever thus far.
Every historic feat needs years of hard work and perseverance. What it also needs is a starting point, the spark which ignites the desire in the coming generations.
Though these moments did not yield a medal, it certainly made a nation back home take notice and believe in its own ability.
Henry Rebello at London 1948
India has not won a medal so far in athletics but triple jumper Henry Rebello came mighty close to doing so at the 1948 Olympics in London, just a year after independence.
The then 19-year-old Henry Rebello was an athletics champion at the school level, even taking part in the long jump and high jump apart from the triple jump event. He was a natural athlete, who trained himself by reading American books.
Henry Rebello had been in roaring form in the lead-up to the 1948 Olympics, making a 15.29m jump earlier in the year, which was not only a national record that stood for over two decades but also the best effort in the world that season.
It made him a medal contender at the London Olympics, with famed commentator and Olympian Harold Abrahams even labelling him the favourite for gold.
Henry Rebello led the preliminary rounds of the triple jump, clearing the heats by a comfortable margin and was looking in good shape to make the dream come true.
However, just as he was about to begin his run in the final, he was asked to stop as a medal ceremony was underway. The sudden stoppage surprised the triple jumper and combined with the cold London weather, it caused him to pull a muscle in, rendering him unfit to take any further part.
It was Henry Rebello’s only appearance at the Olympics as he joined the Indian Air Force after the Games and had a notable career as an administrator, overseeing the hosting of the 1982 Asian Games in New Delhi and later serving as Director of the Sports Authority of India. He passed away in 2013 after a long illness.
The first female contingent at Helsinki 1952
Athletics led the way once again four years and this time it was because India counted Mary D’Souza and Nilima Ghose among its athletes’ contingent, making them the first women from the country to take part in the Olympics.
Nilima Ghose, all of 17 years old, took part in the first heat of the 100m run, and since Mary D’Souza ran the event in a later heat, it made the 17-year-old the first female athlete to represent India at the Olympics.
Mary D’Souza, who also played for the Indian hockey team, was a naturally quick track-and-field athlete who had tremendous stamina and had come into the Games with a bronze at the 1951 Asian Games.
The Indian government initially refused to send her to Helsinki citing lack of funds, but her friends raised the requisite money. The government did eventually contribute a part of the costs later.
Though both of them did not come close to a medal - Ghose was eliminated in the heats of the 100m sprint and 80m hurdles while D’Souza did not make it past the heats in the 100m and 200m – their performances served as a major inspiration for athletes to follow, especially the women.
Indian football finishes fourth at Melbourne 1956
While the Indian hockey team was scripting its own legacy at Melbourne in 1956, winning its second hat-trick of golds and first as an independent nation, the Indian football team almost created history themselves.
The past few years had been a good period for the Indian football team as they qualified for, and later withdrew, from the 1950 FIFA World Cup and won the Asian Games gold in 1951.
They were handed a bye in the first-round against high flyers Hungary and took full advantage of their luck by beating Australia 4-2 in the quarter-finals with Neville D’Souza helping himself to a hat-trick, the first by an Asian at the Olympics.
The Indian football team striker gave them the lead in the semi-finals against Yugoslavia as well but the latter, silver-medallists at the two preceding Olympics, overpowered them 1-4.
However, the bronze medal beckoned still but the Indian football team, which boasted of recently-deceased legend PK Banerjee, did not seem to recover from the defeat in the semi-finals as they went down 0-3 to Bulgaria.
Neville D’Souza finished as the joint top-scorer with four goals as scant consolation but the performance only spurred Indian football on.
They narrowly missed out on bronze at the 1958 Asian Games but went on to win gold in 1962 as the silky Chuni Goswami, who passed away earlier this week, led them to the title.
The Indian football team went to finish runners-up in 1964 AFC Asian Cup, their best performance thus far, before undergoing a period of decline until the millennium.
Stars like Bhaichung Bhutia and Sunil Chhetri have emerged in the new era and have led the Indian football team to new heights, as they started competing better in the international stage, even breaching the top 100 FIFA rankings and set up their own domestic leagues- the I League and the Indian Super League.