On 15th October when whole of India was remembering APJ Abdul Kalam on his birth anniversary India lost another legend who had made India proud at the international level. Subedar Shamsher Khan lost the battle against life and breathed his last on the auspicious day of 15th October. Shamsher Khan had joined Indian Army and served the nation and also made the country proud by becoming India’s First Olympian Swimmer. Shamsher Khan lost the battle to cardiac arrest and breathed his last at his native house in Andhra Pradesh.
In 1956, Shamsher Khan became India’s First Swimmer to take part in Olympics. He also stunned everyone with his amazing performance at the Olympics. He secured 5th rank in the qualifying round, thus becoming the only Indian to achieve such an amazing feat. It’s been 51 years, yet no Indian swimmer has been able to break or even match the achievement of Shamsher Khan. Sadly we Indians have a short memory when it comes to sports other than cricket. Hence Shamsher Khan who was an Olympic Hero and a national icon back in 1950’s died an unknown death.
Shamsher Khan’s achievements are not meagre by any means. He had set new national records in all the four swimming strokes as well as in water polo and diving, thus becoming the only Indian to achieve such an amazing feat. To add to that, he also served in the Indian Army and protected the borders of the nation.
While the Bollywood is coming up with biopic’s dedicated to several outstanding sportspersons who have achieved amazing feats in their field, surprisingly no one has ever taken an interest in bringing out a biopic on the life of Shamsher Khan.
At a tender of 16, Shamsher Khan joined the army to serve the nation. In 1946, when he was recruited by the army he went through rigorous training and was inducted into Bangalore’s Madras Engineer Group. He went on to fight two of the most important wars in the history of India. Two wars which have brought mixed memories to India and Indians. Yes, he took part in Indo-China war in 1962 and Indo-Pak war of 1973. He retired from the army as a subedar after serving for 24 long years.
Though he used to swim when he would accompany buffaloes to the water he had never taken swimming seriously. It was during his time with the army that helped him find out the innate talent hidden in him. Once he found out his innate talent, Shamsher worked on getting better and better by going through training every single day without fail.
In 1949, Shamsher surprised everyone by announcing his arrival in style at the swimming tournament held at Mysore. From then on he marched ahead without ever turning back.
In 1954, Shamsher set the new national record in 200m butterfly event. In 1955, Khan not only swept all records at the national meet in Bangalore but also earned himself a ticket to represent India at the Olympics.
Though Shamsher was selected to represent India at the Melbourne Olympics 1956, the government said it would only look after the travelling expenses which meant Shamsher had to spend money from his pocket for food and another cost during his stay in Melbourne. Shamsher, not the one to give up so easily applied for a loan in the Army and got a loan of Rs. 300.
“In those days, my salary was just Rs.56, and the Army deducted the entire Rs.300 from my salary after my return from Olympics. All the same, I am thankful to the government for allowing me to be a part of such a glorious event,” Khan recalled in one of his last interviews with Times of India.
At Melbourne Olympics, Khan made Indians proud by securing 5th place in both 200m butterfly and 200m breaststroke event. It is interesting to note no Indian has yet been successful to even equal the achievement of Shamsher Khan.
After his return from Olympics, he wanted to train harder and bring a medal for the country but owing to the poor financial background and lack of support from the government he had to give up his dream and continue serving in the army until retirement.
After retirement, Shamsher returned to his native village of Kythapalli in Guntur district of Andhra Pradesh where he settled with his wife and children. With time government and people of India forgot this great sporting legend and hence he lived a life of isolation.
Though he was suffering from hearing impairment and severe heart problem, he never fought with the government to help him. His daughter in law proudly says, “My father-in-law refused to take any financial assistance from locals saying that he is a fighter of Indian army and wanted to die like a fighter, not a beggar,”. Though he lived a life of penury, this man never begged for help from anybody let alone government.
In an age where India and Indians are making a mark in sports at the world level, and people of the country are supporting the growing base of sporting culture, the government has to take steps to make sure that people like Shamsher Khan are not forgotten. If India has to achieve amazing feats in the field of sports, it would be possible only by creating an environment where the success of sports athletes are recognized and celebrated on a large scale. The stepping stone for that would be to celebrate the life of sporting legends like Shamsher Khan which would inspire thousands of youth to take up sports as a career.