Norman Pritchard – India’s first Olympic medalist
Looking back at the feats of a relatively unknown India's first Olympic medalist
India’s golden run in the Olympics in hockey in the mid 20th century is well documented and the individual medal winners in past 2 decades have rightly become household names post their medal-winning performances. The successes of Sushil Kumar and Yogeshwar Dutt in wrestling in the Olympics have also helped bring some much-deserved spotlight on Khashaba Jadhav’s bronze medal win in the 1952 edition.
There have been 2 near misses for India in athletics, with both Milkha Singh and P.T. Usha narrowly missing out on bronze medals in the 1960 and 1984 Olympics respectively. However, 20 years before the country sent its first team representation to the Olympics, an English-origin athlete won 2 medals for India in 200m and 200m hurdles events in the 1900 edition in Paris.
Norman Gilbert Pritchard was born in Calcutta in British India to George Peterson Pritchard, who the records show was an accountant in Alipore, and Helen Maynard Pritchard on June 23, 1877. Calcutta registrar records have mention of Norman Pritchard’s baptism in January 1883.
Pritchard went on to graduate from St. Xavier’s College in the city and joined work at Bird & Co., which was a well-known trading house.
Pritchard was a fine athlete from his formative years and participated in football and athletics in Calcutta with some distinction. He won the Bengal 100 yards sprint for 7 consecutive years between 1894 and 1900, and also is considered to have scored the first recorded hat-trick in an open football tournament in India in a game for St. Xavier’s against Sovabazar in1897.
Visit to England
In 1900, Norman visited England with Pritchard Sr. for trading in the jute market, and it was on this trip that he started participating in the athletics circuit in England which led to his subsequent qualification and participation in the Olympics in Paris.
Getting membership of the prestigious London Athletic Club, Pritchard ensured instant impact as he won the trophies for the 100 yards, 120 yards hurdles and 440 yards hurdles events in the club tournaments. Soon after he participated in the British Athletics Championships (AAA Championships) representing a Bengal Presidency Athletic Club and a strong performance reportedly helped him achieve qualification for the Paris Olympics.
His performances didn’t go unnoticed in England and The Field magazine wrote on him calling Pritchard an “Indian champion”.
Pritchard participated in five events in the Paris Games, out of which he reached the final of three events – 110m hurdles, 200m, and 200m hurdles. He couldn’t qualify for the final of the other two – 60m and 100m – though he did win the first heat of 100m.
He stumbled at an early stage in the 110m hurdles final and couldn’t complete the race, but more than compensated for that with winning Silver medals in the other 2 finals. He finished second behind American Walter Tewksbury in the 200m sprint and also second behind another American - Alvin Kraenzlein in the 200m hurdles.
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There has been controversy about whether Pritchard was representing India or Britain in the Paris Olympics, and both countries have claimed the medals to be attributed to their Olympics hauls. The International Olympic Committee’s official website mentions Pritchard having represented India and the two medals are counted in India’s tally.
The athlete’s association with Bengal Presidency Athletic Club (while participating in the AAA Championships) is reported to the be a reason for Pritchard being considered as a participant from British India.
Administration & Acting Career
Pritchard returned to India after the Olympics, and decided to quit participation in sports and instead opted to move to sports administration. He worked with the Indian Football Association from 1900 to 1902, serving in the role of secretary of the federation.
Pritchard relocated to England in 1905, and after the exposure to top level athletics participation in the previous trip, this time, he found another calling in a totally different field. When asked during a dinner to describe Lord Curzon’s welcome durbar in Delhi, Pritchard’s elaborate and dramatic description impressed Sir Charles Wyndham (who was involved in theatre) so much that the latter first mistook Pritchard for an actor.
Sir Wyndham offered Pritchard a bit part role in one of his plays and later advised him to consider acting as a serious career option.
Taking Sir Wyndham’s advice, Pritchard moved to the USA and made his Broadway debut in 1914 and big screen debut in the following year. He went on to act in 26 plays and 27 silent movies and is widely accepted as one of the first Olympians to go on to make a career in acting.
He used the screen name of Norman Trevor and starred in movies like Jane Eyre (1921), The Black Panther's Cub (1921), Beau Geste (1926), and Dancing Mothers (1926). Tonight at Twelve (1929) was his final movie. Apart from acting, he was part of the trade union, and led a boycott to demand better wages for theatre artists.
It is speculated that Pritchard suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and found himself in and out of mental institutions in the latter part of his life. He died in October 1929 of a brain malady in Los Angeles. It is reported that his wife had already left him before that and returned to India, and at present, there are no known descendants of the family.
While Pritchard may not have known about the real magnitude of his achievements while he participated in the Paris Games, and the claims of him being India’s representative are still challenged by some, the fact is that the official records mention him as India’s first medalist in the pinnacle event of world sports.
Pritchard may be of English heritage but he was born in India, grew up here and learnt the sport and later spent some time as an administrator as well in the country. He proved to everyone that it was possible from athletes coming from Asia to compete with the best in the world.
The country’s first medalist can be a source of inspiration for the contingent of close to 40 athletes (part of a record group of 121 sportspersons India is sending to the Games) who will be going to Rio Olympics to showcase their skills against the top players in the world.