India at the Olympics: A brief history of the country at the Games since independence

India at the Olympics: A brief history of the country at the Games since independence

According to the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) records, India’s Olympic journey started in Paris, and the French capital is where athletes representing the country will travel to this year. The 2024 Paris Olympics starts on July 26 and 111 athletes will be representing India across 16 sports. India’s haul of seven medals at the previous edition of the Olympics in Tokyo made it the country’s best performance in a single edition of the Games and the athletes will be hoping to do even better than that this time around. But before we look forward, let’s take a look behind. We had previously looked at India’s history at the Olympics before the country gained independence from British rule. Here we take a look at how the country has fared in each edition of the Games since August 15, 1947.

Neeraj Chopra after his gold medal-winning throw at the Tokyo Olympics(PTI)
Neeraj Chopra after his gold medal-winning throw at the Tokyo Olympics(PTI)

London 1948 – No more Dhyan Chand but hockey dominance continues

The first Olympics after the Second World War also marked the first time that India competed at the Games as an independent nation, with the tricolour being the country’s flag as opposed to the British-era Civil Ensign or the Viceroy’s flag. The country was represented by a total of 79 athletes in 39 events across 10 sports. All competitors were men. This was the first time that the hockey team played without Dhyan Chand and Kishan Lal was the captain. India were the dominant team in the group stage once again, scoring 19 goals in three matches and conceding one, but then faced a close contest for a change in the semi-finals, beating the Netherlands 2-1. They then beat hosts Great Britain 4-0.

Helsinki 1952 – KD Jadhav makes history

The 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Finland marked another important milestone for India. While the men’s hockey team won their fifth consecutive gold, wrestler Khashaba Dadasaheb Jadhav became the first athlete from independent India to win an individual medal at the Olympics. Jadhav competed in the bantamweight freestyle category and won bronze. The men’s hockey team, meanwhile, beat the Netherlands 6-1 in the final to secure gold. Great Britain won bronze after beating Pakistan 2-1.

Melbourne 1956 – Hockey reign challenged

Once again, the Indian hockey team were the sole medal winners for the country but even they felt the heat for arguably the first time since they started competing at the Olympics. They went the entire tournament without conceding a goal, pounding in 36 of their own in the group stage in just three matches. They beat Germany 1-0 in the semi-final and were pushed to the brink by Pakistan in the final. India scored the only goal of the match off a penalty corner in the third minute of the second half and won their sixth consecutive gold. The Indian men’s football team managed their best-ever finish in the Olympics in 1956, reaching the semi-finals where they lost 4-1 to Yugoslavia. They then lost 3-0 to Bulgaria in the bronze medal match.

Rome 1960 – Hockey golden run ends

The 1960 Olympics marks the end of the Indian men’s hockey team’s golden run. The silver they won was the only medal that India got from the Olympics, but sprint great Milkha Singh came within a whisker of winning bronze in men’s 400m. He finished with a time of 45.6 seconds in a photo-finish with South African Malcolm Spence, who was deemed to have managed a time of 45.5 seconds and won bronze. In hockey, India sailed through the group stage. They then beat Australia 1-0 in extra time in the quarter-finals and Great Britain by the same margin in the semis. In the final though, Pakistan beat India 1-0. It was the first time in the history of the Olympics that the Indian hockey team had been beaten and also the first time since 1920 that a team other than India had won gold in the sport. The 1960 Olympics also marked the Indian football team’s last participation in the Games. They were knocked out in the first round and finished 13th.

Tokyo 1964 – Hockey gold won back

India sent a contingent of 53 athletes to Tokyo for the 1964 Olympics with hopes once again on the hockey team. They ended up taking the gold back in a dramatic final against Pakistan. Apart from this, Gurbachan Singh Randhawa notably finished fifth in men’s 110m hurdles with a time of 14.09 seconds.

Mexico City 1968 – More hits for the hockey team

India sent only 25 athletes to Mexico City for the 1968 Olympics. The hockey team aced the group stage once again but were stunned in the semi-finals by Australia, marking the first time that they had lost a match to an opposition apart from Pakistan and just the second time ever that they had lost a match in the Olympics. Australia won 2-1 in a game that had to be decided in extra time. India hence faced West Germany in their first-ever bronze medal match and won 2-1. It was the only medal that came from the contingent.

Munich 1972 – 2nd consecutive hockey bronze

The tumultuous Munich Olympics marked the second consecutive year in which the Indian hockey team could only manage a bronze medal. West Germany became the first European team since 1920 to win an Olympic gold in the sport. A total of 41 athletes represented India of which only one was a woman. Kamaljeet Sandhu participated in the women’s 400m, bowing out in the heats.

Montreal 1976 – The end of an era

The 1976 Montreal Olympics was, for all means and purposes, the end of an era in Indian hockey. The men’s team failed to win a medal for the first time since 1928 as New Zealand won gold, Australia took silver and Pakistan won bronze. India, who so often made a joke out of group stages in prior Olympics, finished beneath the Netherlands and Australia in their pool and thus couldn’t make it to the semi-finals. They then lost to West Germany in the 5-8th place semi-finals and settled for a seventh spot finish after beating Malaysia 2-0. While India would go on to win gold again at the next Games, the team’s time as the most dominant team in the Olympics was done. There were no medals for the country in any other sport, meaning India drew a blank at the Olympics for the first time since 1928.

Moscow 1980 – The last hockey gold

The Moscow Olympics marks the last time when the Indian men’s hockey team won gold at the Games. It also marked the debut of women’s hockey, and thus, the Indian women’s team also made its first appearance. The Olympics as a whole was hit by a wave of withdrawals, with 66 countries led by the USA boycotting the Games. This meant that the women’s tournament ended up becoming a league, with the teams finishing in the top three getting to the podium. India finished fourth, their best finish in the Olympics which was equalled at Tokyo 2020. The Indian women’s team’s next Olympic appearance would only come in Rio 2016. The men’s tournament was a single group stage followed by matches for the gold and bronze medals. India finished second and then beat Spain 4-3 in a tense gold medal match.

Los Angeles 1984 – PT Usha misses bronze by milliseconds

India sent a team of 48 athletes to the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. It began a barren run for the men’s hockey team, with their years of glory well behind them, that would last more than four decades. However, there were a couple of significant developments in women’s athletics; PT Usha missed out on the women’s 400m bronze by one-hundredth of a second. Shiny Abraham became the first Indian woman to reach the semi-finals of an Olympic event, recording a personal best of 2:04.69 seconds in women’s 800m. Usha, Abraham, MD Valsamma and Vandana Rao then made it to the finals of the women’s 4x400m relay. They finished last among the seven teams in the final but set an Asian record of 3:32.49 seconds.

Seoul 1988 – No medals in the pocket

At the 1988 Seoul Olympics, India was represented by 46 athletes. There were no medals for the country with the men’s hockey team failing to make it past the group stage once again and finishing seventh. A total of 39 men and seven women were part of the Indian contingent and none made it to the semi-finals of their respective events.

Barcelona 1992 – Third consecutive medal-less Games

The Barcelona Games marked the third consecutive time that the Indian contingent returned empty-handed from an Olympics. The men’s hockey team were dumped out in the group stage again. Leander Paes made his Olympic debut. While he couldn’t go past the first round in men’s singles, Paes made it to the quarter-finals of men’s doubles with Ramesh Krishnan.

Atlanta 1996 – The dry run ends at last

India’s medal drought finally ended at the 1996 Olympics with Leander Paes becoming the first Indian tennis player to win bronze at the Games. He was the first Indian in 44 years to win an individual gold and it was the first medal for the country since the men’s hockey team’s gold in 1980. Paes lost in the semi-finals to eventual gold medal winner Andre Agassi and faced Brazil’s Fernando Meligeni in the bronze medal match. He won 3-6, 6-2, 6-4.

Sydney 2000 – The first female Indian medallist

The Sydney Olympics in 2000 were significant for India, as the country sent its largest contingent yet, with 65 athletes. Karnam Malleswari made history by winning a bronze medal in weightlifting and becoming the first Indian woman to win an Olympic medal. Malleswari competed in the women’s 69kg category and managed to lift a best weight of 110.0kg in snatch and 130.0kg in clean and jerk. She thus finished with a total of 240.0kg, putting herself well clear of fourth spot.

Athens 2004 – A shooting medal in the bag

Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore was India’s sole medal-winner as the Olympics returned to its historic home for the first time since the first modern iteration was held in the Greek city in 1896. Rathore was the first Indian to win an individual silver. He finished with a score of 135 in the qualification round of men’s trap shooting. In the final, Rathore shot 179 to finish a point above China’s Wang Zheng.

Beijing 2008 – Gold returns to India

The lead-up to the Beijing Olympics was a negative one for the country as the men’s hockey team failed to qualify. It meant that India weren’t represented in men’s hockey at the Olympics for the first time since 1928. However, the Games then turned out to be a historic one. Abhinav Bindra became the first Indian in India’s independent history to win an individual gold medal, winning the men’s 10m air rifle title. It was the first gold for India overall since the men’s hockey team won the title in 1980 and the first gold for the country in a sport apart from hockey. Meanwhile, wrestler Sushil Kumar won bronze in men’s freestyle 66kg while boxer Vijender Singh won bronze in men’s 75kg. Sushil was the first Indian wrestler to win an Olympic medal since KD Jadhav in 1952 while Vijender was the first Indian boxer to win a Games medal.

London 2012 – A record haul

If India won three medals at the 2008 Olympics, they doubled that tally in 2012, albeit without a gold. The men’s hockey team returned to the Olympic fold and were the only representatives for India in any team-based sport. Sushil Kumar became the first Indian athlete to win two individual Olympic medals, bettering his bronze medal in Beijing to silver in men’s 66kg freestyle wrestling. His was one of two medals that came from the wrestling mat for India, the other being Yogeshwar Dutt, who won bronze in men’s 60kg. There were two bronze shooting medals for India: Vijay Kumar, in men’s 25m rapid fire pistol, and Gagan Narang in men’s 10m air rifle. London 2012 also marked the first time that two female Indian athletes won individual medals. Saina Nehwal became the first Indian badminton player to win an Olympic medal by winning bronze in women’s singles while Mary Kom won bronze in the first women’s flyweight boxing event at the Olympics.

Rio 2016 – Sindhu and Sakshi save the day

India went in with many hopes considering their performance at London 2012 and the form of their shooting contingent going into the Olympics. However, it was a stunning barren run for India for much of the Games until Sakshi Malik won bronze in women’s 58kg wrestling. She thus became the first female wrestler from India to win an Olympic medal. PV Sindhu then won silver in badminton after a sensational run to the final.

Tokyo 2020 (held in 2021) – Another gold, records broken and a hockey medal at last

There was cautious optimism going into the postponed Tokyo 2020. Neeraj Chopra had set the world on fire in javelin throw leading up to it while both the Indian men’s and women’s hockey teams were in fine fettle. India’s badminton and shooting contingents were also in good form, and the likes of Vinesh Phogat and Bajrang Punia had won a host of wrestling medals in the run-up. The Indian contingent ended up winning a record seven medals. This included a gold for Neeraj, India’s first in athletics since Norman Pritchard all the way back in 1900 and the country’s second individual gold in its independent history after Abhinav Bindra in 2008. The men’s hockey team beat Germany 5-4 in a thriller to win bronze, the country’s first medal in the sport since 1980. Mirabai Chanu won silver in women’s 49kg weightlifting. PV Sindhu became the second Indian after Sushil Kumar to become a double Olympic medallist, winning bronze in women’s singles badminton. Lovlina Borgohain became the third Indian boxer to win an Olympic medal, winning bronze in women’s welterweight. India won two medals in wrestling, with Ravi Dahiya taking silver in men’s freestyle 57kg and Bajrang winning bronze in men’s freestyle 65kg. The Indian contingent participated in a record 69 events, and earned medals across 18 athletic disciplines.

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