KD Jadhav: The scrawny lad who stood tall in the sport of giants

He may have been lean and stood at only 5’5” but the Indian wrestler dwarfs the far bigger athletes in his sport.

His name might not have the same lustre or renown now, but for a generation gone by KD Jadhav was a star they adored and wanted to emulate.

Khashabha Dadasaheb Jadhav would go one to become independent India’s first individual Olympic medallist. But his journey to the Olympic podium was anything but easy.

The tale has it that when a lean and short Jadhav approached the sports teacher at the Raja Ram College in Kolhapur, Maharashtra to be listed for the wrestling event at the annual sports meet, he was shunned away without a second thought.

But that was not to stop the 23-year-old Jadhav. He would walk up to the college principal demanding to be listed for the event, something that the latter would give into.

It was the only opportunity that the determined youngster would need to prove himself. Bout after bout, Jadhav would beat opponents who were much stronger and experienced than him to win that event.

It was an incident that would go on to define KD Jadhav, a gritty man who simply refused to bow down to the taunts and obstacles that were thrown his way.

Driven by technique

In the middle of the previous century, Maharashtra boasted of a rich wrestling heritage. Grapplers like Maruti Mane, Ganpatrao Andalkar and Dadu Chowgule were renowned nationwide.

Though he never reached that level of fame, Dadasaheb Jadhav was a prominent wrestler in a small village named Goleshwar and the passion he had trickled down to his five sons.

However, his youngest seemed the most sport-oriented. KD Jadhav excelled at weightlifting, swimming, running and hammer throw but the genetic passion led him to the wrestling akhadas at the age of 10.

“He would never miss any wrestling event anywhere,” his childhood friend Rajarao Deodekar told Rediff.com in an interview. “He would take all of us with him to watch and then analyse and discuss the match of us.”

The youngster began training under his father and was then mentored by pros Baburao Balawde and Belapuri Guruji.

KD Jadhav was not very strong and relied on his technique to win. Photo: Pro Wrestling League
KD Jadhav was not very strong and relied on his technique to win. Photo: Pro Wrestling LeagueKD Jadhav was not very strong and relied on his technique to win. Photo: Pro Wrestling League

His slight build meant that he could not overawe his opponents with sheer power, and thus spent a lot of time perfecting his technique, of which he excelled at something known as Dhak in the local language – where a wrestler holds his opponent in a headlock and flings him to the ground.

The nippy KD Jadhav won multiple state and national-level titles, and after he won the event at the Raja Ram college, the Maharaj of Kolhapur, a wrestling hub those days, was impressed enough to fund his trip for the 1948 London Olympics.

Tough introduction and rebuild at the Olympics

KD Jadhav got his first taste of the Olympics at London, where he finished sixth, an impressive feat for someone who had practiced his whole life in the mud, and was suddenly fazed with wrestling on a mat.

However, the uber-competitive grappler was disappointed with himself. He began to train with more intensity than before, determined to bring home a medal.

“He had great stamina and was the only one who could do 250-300 push-ups at one go and around 1,000 sit-ups,” recalled Ganpati Parsu Jadhav, another childhood friend, to The Indian Express. “We would train together twice a day for four hours.”

Despite having travelled to the Olympics once already and continuing to prove his mettle in India, KD Jadhav was initially not picked in the contingent for the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki.

KD Jadhav with the numerous medals he won. Photo: Twitter/NOC India
KD Jadhav with the numerous medals he won. Photo: Twitter/NOC IndiaKD Jadhav with the numerous medals he won. Photo: Twitter/NOC India

He had beaten the national flyweight champion Niranjan Das, standing over six feet tall and well-built, twice within minutes in Lucknow. When the authorities did not budge still, he wrote to the Maharaja of Patiala, who arranged a third bout between the two.

KD Jadhav wasted no time in pinning Das down again and finally had the chance to fulfil his dream again. This time though, there was no one to fund him.

The then 27-year-old ran from pillar to post, gathering some money from the villagers and the biggest contribution came from his former principal, who mortgaged his own house, to lend him Rs 7,000.

Having gone through the hard grind, KD Jadhav’s steely resolve saw him beat many a difficult international wrestler – Canadian Adrien Poliquin and PL Basurto of Mexico – counted among his triumphs in the bantamweight category.

He fell in the next round to Rashid Mammadbeyov, and before he had time to rest, was up against eventual gold medallist Shohachi Ishii, a bout he conceded due to sheer exhaustion.

However, it had ensured a bronze medal for KD Jadhav, more than just reward for a four-year-long effort and the mental stress of hooping through bureaucratic and financial hardships, making it India’s first individual Olympic medal.

He went back home with much fanfare – more than 100 bullock carts led the procession - and the journey from the train station to his home, a 15-minute distance, took seven hours that day.

KD Jadhav on the podium at the 1952 Olympics. Photo: Twitter/NOC India
KD Jadhav on the podium at the 1952 Olympics. Photo: Twitter/NOC IndiaKD Jadhav on the podium at the 1952 Olympics. Photo: Twitter/NOC India

Life after wrestling

Once he returned home, KD Jadhav set about repaying everyone who had lent him money, organizing bouts and giving the proceeds to his creditors, the first of which went to his gracious college principal, Khardikar.

The Goleshwar residents dedicated a structure in a public square where five rings interlock in a structure to his monumental achievement. Interestingly, Jadhav also named his house ‘Olympic Niwas’, which translates to ‘Olympic House’.

He joined the Maharashtra police in 1955 as a sub-inspector while juggling his passion for wrestling and was all set to travel to the Melbourne Olympics in 1956 but a serious knee injury ended his hopes.

KD Jadhav dabbled occasionally at the police games though, and also trained several cops in the force. He diligently rose through the ranks of the Maharashtra police and retired as an Assistant Commissioner in 1983.

The Indian wrestler, unfortunately passed away in a motorcycle accident in 1984 and was posthumously awarded the Arjuna Award in 2001. The wrestling ring at the IGI arena was named the ‘KD Jadhav stadium’ to honour him during the 2010 Commonwealth Games.

A biopic was also planned around the legendary Indian athlete after former wrestler Sangram Singh bought the rights to make a film on his life.

“He is the first superstar from sports in India,” said Sangram Singh, who was to play the leading role in the movie. “He won an Olympic medal in 1952, when all facilities were scarce. 

“He was the first one to put India on the map and the world knew for the first time that India too can produce top athletes and sportspersons,” he told the Hindustan Times.

His passion for the sport though is best summed up in his words, something his son Ranjit recalled in an interview with The Indian Express.

“He said that he would like to be reborn as a wrestler — the sport had given him some of the best moments of his life.”

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