Was Norman Pritchard India’s first Olympic medallist? Athlete-Hollywood star divides historians

New Delhi: On the sidelines of Neeraj Chopra’s historic ‘golden throw’ in Tokyo, a controversy has erupted among Olympic historians over whether the Subedar with the Rajputana Rifles can be described as the first winner of a track and field medal for India in the Games. Should the honour not belong to Kolkata’s Norman Pritchard, the athlete-turned-Hollywood actor who won two silver medals at the 1900 Paris Olympics?

The jury is clearly divided. The doyen of Olympic historians, Ian Buchanan, wrote a lengthy article in the Journal of Olympic History (January 2000) arguing that Pritchard was British and that he was sent to the Paris Olympics by the British Amateur Athletics Association (AAA).

Pritchard, 25 years old and on a visit to England, himself sowed the seeds of confusion. He entered the AAA Championships, where he won the 100-yard race and 120-yard hurdles, thereby qualifying for the 1900 International Championships (as the Olympics were known then), as a representative of both the London AC (Athletic Club) and the Bengal Presidency AC.

What sealed Pritchard’s place in the British team was his runner-up finish to the American track and field star, Al Kraenzlein, in the 120-yard hurdles at the AAA Championships. Kraenzlein went on to win four gold medals in Paris.

As the entry on Pritchard in Olympedia.org, which lists him under the Indian flag, points out, “Buchanan notes that the Paris programme lists him as a member of the AAA team, and that The New York Times referred to him as an ‘Englishman’, yet other starting lists give him as competing for ‘British India’.” The official programme, Buchanan says, gives Pritchard’s affiliation as ‘England’ for the 100 metres and ‘British India’ for the 100m hurdles.

Pritchard, who participated in five track and field events, and won silver medals in both 200 metres and 200m hurdles, got noticed also because he would double as a compere for many of the programmes at the Paris Olympics. For his contributions, the AAA awarded him a silver medal and the French Olympic Committee gave him a pen knife worth a few francs.

Technically, Norman Pritchard cannot be claimed by us because India officially gained entry into the Olympics only in 1920, thanks to the efforts of the industrialist Sir Dorabji Tata, who was acting in his capacity as President of the Deccan Gymkhana, Pune, and the then Governor of Bombay, George Lloyd, who lobbied with the British Olympic Committee to push for India’s inclusion in the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

George, incidentally, was the one who ordered the imprisonment of Mahatma Gandhi on the charge of sedition under the now-controversial Section 125 of the Indian Penal Code.

The Athletics Federation of India (AFI), clearly, doesn’t share Buchanan’s view. In support of its ownership of Pritchard, it quotes Dr Otto Peltzer, the renowned German coach and athlete who spent many years promoting track and field sports in India. Peltzer, who used to live in Delhi, had said: “Indians should be proud of the fact that Norman Pritchard of India was the first from Asia to win medals in the Paris Olympics in 1900. That was a splendid beginning � a magnificent start for Asia.”

Sport journalist and Olympic historian Gulu Ezekiel advances another argument in favour of India claiming Pritchard. The Englishman, he says, was born in Kolkata and earned his early athletic glory in the then capital of British India.

Olympedia.org leans towards Ezekiel’s argument. It notes: “Pritchard was a solid sprinter and hurdler, winning the Bengal 100 yards title for seven consecutive years (1894-1900), and was also the Bengal champion at 440 yards and 120-yard hurdles, which would lend support to the Indian claim. He was also at one time Secretary of the Indian FA [Football Association].”

The track and field athlete was an accomplished footballer, too. He’s reported to have scored the first hat-trick in a football match in India — for his alma mater, St Xavier’s College, Kolkata, against Sovabazar in 1897.

So, who was Norman Pritchard? Buchanan writes that Norman Gilbert Pritchard was the son of George Peterson Pritchard and Helen Maynard Pritchard, and he was born on June 23, 1875, at Alipore, a tony Kolkata neighbourhood. Both his parents were English and his father, an accountant, was well-known in the British commercial community.

Quoting the 1905 edition of ‘Thacker’s Indian Directory’, Buchanan says: “Pritchard lived on the fashionable Robinson Road and worked for the well-known trading house, Bird & Co.” He was therefore not an Anglo-Indian, but he was definitely a ‘British Indian’ — or a ‘colonial’ in contemporary nomenclature.

After the Games, Buchanan continues, “Pritchard returned to India and served as Secretary of the Indian Football Association (1900-1902) and the membership records of the London AC show that he was again in England in 1906, but by 1908 he was listed as ‘Abroad’ and his membership of the Club ceased that year.”

Where did Norman Pritchard disappear? Well, he moved to Hollywood, changed his name to Norman Trevor, and became a star of the silent movie era.

This biographical twist in the tale was first brought to light by sport historian Saradindu Sanyal in the 1970s. Olympedia.org states that Trevor appeared in 27 films produced by the Hollywood studio, MGM, including the motion picture version of the Charlotte Bronte classic ‘Jane Eyre’ (1921), where he played Mr Rochester, one of the memorable characters of English literature.

Norman Pritchard (Trevor) met with a tragic end in Norwalk, California, in 1929. He died penniless, in and out of mental asylums, as a result of a chronic brain disease considered incurable in his time. Thus ended a gifted life that continues to divide the custodians of Olympic history.


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