Every four years, at the time of the Olympics, the Indian media seems to rediscover a man named Norman Pritchard, who is called “India’s greatest Olympic hero”, and who won two silver medals at the 1900 Olympics – more than any Indian has won since then – and there is a small, sudden flurry of snippets and stories about him.
But the problem is, not many of these articles are based on actual research on Pritchard, and most of them perpetuate the same old mixture of truths and half-truths – along with some downright untruths.
So who exactly was Norman Pritchard?
The short answer is, Norman Pritchard was a Kolkata-born, St Xaviers-educated boy, born in 1877, who became India’s top athlete of his time. He set several records in Bengal as well as at the All-India level.
He then took part in the 1900 Olympics in Paris, becoming the first person from India to take part in the Games. There he competed in five different athletic events, against athletes like the legendary Alvin Kraenzlein of the US, the “Jesse Owens of his time”.
Pritchard ended with a Silver in the 200 metres sprint, and another Silver in the 200 metres hurdles. He was unlucky to have stumbled halfway through the 110 metres hurdles, or else he might have won yet another medal.
Thanks to Pritchard, India had the seventh highest tally of medals at the 1900 Olympics. No Indian Olympian has come close to Pritchard’s performance in the 116 years since then. The much-vaunted Milkha Singh failed to win a bronze in 1960, and the fancied PT Usha also fell short of third place in 1984.
In fact, the only other Indian to have won two individual Olympic medals was wrestler Sushil Kumar, who won a Bronze and a Silver, spread over two separate Olympics, in 2008 and 2012.
So that is a brief summary of Norman Pritchard’s Olympic achievements. But the larger question still remains: who was the man himself?
Indian? Anglo-indian? Or English?
The first Indian writer to discover Pritchard was probably Saradindu Sanyal, who made a brief mention of him in his Olympic Games and India, published in 1970. But most Indian sports writers only heard about Pritchard around the time of the 1996 Olympics, thanks mainly to David Wallachinsky’s authoritative The Complete Book of the Olympics, which mentioned Pritchard, crediting his medals to India.
It was a wonderful surprise for the country, which was suffering from the angst of not having won a single Olympic medal for the past twelve years. And there was a wave of conjecture about who this Norman Pritchard character was. People generally concluded that he must have been some unknown Anglo-Indian – especially because Anglo-Indians made up a large proportion of India’s pre-Independence Olympics teams (our famous early hockey teams, for example, were more than half Anglo-Indian). But nobody really knew who Pritchard was.
Perhaps as a result of the entry in Wallachinsky’s The Complete Book of the Olympics, Ian Buchanan, a well-known Olympic historian, did extensive research on Norman Pritchard. Based on this, he published an article in the Journal of Olympic History in 2000, seeking to set the record straight.
According to Buchanan, Pritchard was not Indian. Nor did he represent India at the 1900 Olympics.
A national affront?
Buchanan pointed out that, first, Pritchard was born to an English family settled in India, and was therefore technically English. And second, he had, in fact, attended the Olympics as part of the British Amateur Athletics Association’s team (having been a star of its championship in London a few weeks earlier).
The confusion about his nationality, Buchanan suggested, arose because when he entered the British Amateur Athletics Association championship, Pritchard happened to mention his membership of the Bengal Presidency Athletics Club, as well as of the London Athletics Club.
As a result of Buchanan’s article, David Wallachinsky, in his next edition of The Complete Book of the Olympics in 2000, dutifully changed Pritchard’s affiliation from India to Great Britain.
There were loud protests from the Indian sports establishment at this deemed insult to the country’s athletic pride. It was pointed out that, regardless of anything, Pritchard was born in Kolkata, studied in Kolkata, set all of his early athletic records on the sports fields of Kolkata, and must therefore be deemed to be an Indian. (A tongue-in-cheek suggestion at the time was to tell the English: OK, you keep Ranji, the legendary “English” cricketer, and we’ll keep Norman Pritchard.)
Meanwhile,, David Wallachinsky, obviously not wanting to get caught in this unseemly controversy, washed his hands of it, saying he had “an open mind on this issue” and, in the next edition of his The Complete Book of the Olympics, he diplomatically credited Pritchard’s medals both to Great Britain and India.
And that is where things currently stand, in the grey area of long-ago colonial identity politics.
A tangled, messy issue
So was Norman Pritchard an Indian athlete or not? Let us try to look at the facts, dispassionately, in an attempt to figure things out for ourselves.
First, Pritchard did not enter the 1900 Olympics officially under the Indian flag (India was not even a member of the Olympics until 1928, when it sent its first official contingent). Instead, Pritchard entered the Olympics as a private individual, as many people did at the time. And, owing to various circumstances, he went to Paris with the British Amateur Athletics Association team.
On the other hand he was, undoubtedly, born in India, educated in India, and worked in India in his early years, in the jute trade. He also set an entire series of athletic records in India, including the Bengal 100 yards sprint record for seven consecutive years, and the national 120 yards hurdles record.
He had an Indian birth certificate, and travelled to Paris on an Indian travel document (the forerunner of today’s passport). After the Paris Olympics, he came back to India, where he served as Secretary of the Indian Football Association, and lived at No 3, Sarat Chandra Bose Road, Kolkata (where the megalithic HDFC Bank building now stands, and, coincidentally – as I discovered in the course of my research on him – next door to the house where I myself grew up).
But, to complicate matters inextricably, the Olympic programme for the 1900 Games lists Pritchard’s affiliation as “England” for the 100 metres sprint and as “India” for the 100 metres hurdles.
So it is, indeed, a messy, tangled issue. Perhaps the question to ask, ultimately, is: how would Norman Pritchard have chosen to identify himself?
He was certainly not an ‘Anglo-Indian’ – in the sense of being Eurasian – as some Indian writers have suggested. Instead, he was born to an English colonial family settled in India. His father was a senior official in the Calcutta Public Works Department, and apparently well-known in the English expat community.
The family lived in the predominantly “Whites only” area of Alipore. After completing his education, Pritchard joined the prestigious (and “Whites only”) firm of Bird & Co – where, interestingly, Amitabh Bachhan would work, many years later, before he turned to films.
So if you asked Norman Pritchard what he was, he might perhaps first say he was “Anglo-Indian” – but only in the sense in which the term was used before the Census of 1911, when it referred specifically to “country-born” English residents of India. (It was only after the 1911 Census that the term was used to refer to Eurasians).
But, if pushed, Pritchard would almost certainly say he was English. It is unlikely, given his roots, that he would consider himself Indian.
And that is something worth thinking about.
India’s first Hollywood star?
But the Norman Pritchard story doesn’t end with his becoming an Olympic star. A few years later, he moved to England, to work in the booming jute trade of the time. There, one evening at dinner, he was asked to talk about India, and he did it so eloquently and vividly that some of the guests mistook him for a theatre actor. That led to a career on the London stage, then on Broadway, and ultimately, in Hollywood.
And that, of course, gives Norman Pritchard another claim to fame: that of being Hollywood’s first India-born actor, long before Sabu – the famous “Elephant Boy” – till now considered to be Hollywood’s first Indian representative.
Prtichard was also one of the first great athletes to make the crossover to becoming a film star, a path that would later be followed by people ranging from the 1924 Olympic Gold medal swimmer Johnny Weissmuller (of Tarzan fame) to Bruce Lee, Arnold Schwarzenneger, Jason Statham and Dwayne Johnson.
When he went to Hollywood, Norman Pritchard changed his name to Norman Trevor, and had a long, successful career in the silent movie era. He never acquired any real stardom himself, but he co-starred, over the years, with Hollywood legends like Ronald Colman and Clara Bow, as well as the upcoming young Gary Cooper.
Tragically, in his 50s Pritchard fell ill with “a brain malady” – from all evidence, what would today be diagnosed a brain tumour – and, abandoned by his actress wife Ann and his daughter Doris, he died penniless in 1929.
Sporting genes die hard, don't they?
So what happened to Pritchard’s family and descendants?
Pritchard is not a particularly common name. But, interestingly, there is a highly sought-after young English footballer today named Alex Pritchard, and an Australian footballer named Mark Pritchard. There was also a well-known American professional footballer in the 1990s named Mike Pritchard. Are any of them descendants of Norman’s? After all, Norman was also an outstanding footballer himself, and old genes die hard.
I have contacted all three of them – besides following other leads – in order to try and solve the Norman Pritchard mystery, but have not had a reply so far.
Meanwhile, Norman Pritchard lies in a forgotten grave near Los Angeles. Perhaps when Amitabh Bachhan was shooting for Baz Luhrman’s The Great Gatsby in nearby Hollywood, Pritchard’s ghost was hanging around on the sets, hoping for a good gupshup about Bird & Co. and the goings-on at its old offices at No. 2 Clive Street, Kolkata.