The victory procession that greeted Khashaba Jadhav at the Karad railway station after he won independent India’s first individual Olympic medal in 1952 was a see-it-to-believe scene.

“There were dhols along with a 151 bullock cart procession right from the outskirts of Goleshwar to the Mahadeva temple which is normally a 15-minute walk,” recalled Sampat Rao Jadhav, his cousin who was with Khashaba when he left for Helsinki to compete in the bantamweight category.

“It took seven long hours that day and no one was complaining. We have not seen joyous scenes like that either before or after that day. There was a feeling of pride and every villager was basking in that moment of glory. Khashaba bhau brought the small village of Goleshwar, earlier a dot on the map, to the fore. The whole world knew and recognised Goleshwar as the village which gave India its first-ever Olympic champion.”

But given how hard India had made it for Jadhav to even make the trip to the Olympics, the medal was a lesson in how determination and perseverance can overcome all the odds.

Jadhav’s college friends and the royal family of Kolhapur had funded Jadhav’s trip to London for the 1948 Games. But the 1952 Games were a whole different ball game.

The first issue was getting selected for the Games.

According to the book ‘Olympicveer Khashaba Jadhav’ written by Prof. Sanjay Dudhane, Jadhav had to petition the Maharaja of Patiala Yadavinder Singh, who was also the president of the Indian Olympic Association then, seeking a trial after he was unjustly denied of a gold medal at the 1952 nationals in Madras (now Chennai). The tournament was also supposed to double up as the selection meet for the Olympics team.

With a few wrestlers from Punjab also complaining of bias from the officials, a selection trial was held in Kolkata in May 1952 and Jadhav remained unbeaten in those bouts and booked his berth for Helsinki Games.

But, in those days, qualifying for the Olympics was one thing and making the trip was quite another. Jadhav and his family opted for crowd funding in the village. Principal of Rajaram college mortgaged his home to give Jadhav Rs 7,000. He was still short of the Rs 12,000 mark and he along with the two other wrestlers from Maharashtra who had qualified for the Games even sought financial assistance from then Chief Minister of Bombay Province Morarji Desai.

Jadhav’s son Ranjit recalled: “When Baba wanted some financial help for his journey to the Helsinki Olympics, he received a cold snub from (then Bombay chief minister) Morarji Desai, asking him to contact them after the Games.”

Ironically, the same leader garlanded the victorious Jadhav when he returned from Helsinki at a function organised in Bombay.

Finally, his coach Govind Purandare took a loan of Rs 3,000 from Maratha Co-Operative bank a couple of days before the contingent was scheduled to leave for Finland.

The struggles, it seemed, were over but now a greater challenge awaited him on the mat.

Jadhav's bouts at Helsinki

Result Opponent Score Notes
Win Adrien Poliquin Tech. Fall; 14:25 Rank 1T
Win Leonardo Basurto Tech. Fall; 5:20 Rank 1T
Win Ferdinand Schmitz Decision, 3-0 Rank 2T
Win Bye - Rank 1T
Loss Rashid Mammadbeyov 3-0 Rank 1T
Loss Shohachi Ishii 3-0 Bronze

Jadhav breezed through the first three bouts and then received a bye in the fourth on the first day of competition.

According to Dudhane, when Jadhav went to the Indian team manager to ask for the schedule of bouts, he was told that he had a rest day. However, he went to watch the bouts in the stadium after getting bored in the room and as a habit took his wrestling kit along.

When he was watching the other bouts, he heard his name being called and could only reach the official’s table by the time his name was called for the second time. The confusion affected Jadhav and he lost the bout against Shohachi Ishii.

To Jadhav’s surprise, the officials announced the second bout against Soviet Union’s Rashid Mammadbeyov even before the Indian had cooled down following the first bout. With no Indian officials in the arena there was no one to argue his case for a 30-minute break between two bouts.

Jadhav was forced to fight his final bout within 15 minutes. Having failed to recover enough, he lost to Mammadbeyov and had to be satisfied with a bronze medal.

But even he would not have known that India would have to wait for 44 years to get its next individual medal in the Olympics.

As great a wrestler as he was, Jadhav received no awards that recognised his contribution to the country and the sport while he was alive.

Jadhav, who retired as Assistant Commissioner of Police in 1983, passed away a year later in a road accident. The Maharashtra Government awarded the Chhatrapati Puraskar to him posthumously in 1992-1993 and he was also posthumously honoured with the Arjuna Award in 2001.

But his life showed that grit and commitment can help one overcome seemingly insurmountable odds.