India

The search for India's first Olympic medallist

Norman Gilbert Pritchard Image copyright Gulu Ezekiel collection
Image caption Norman Gilbert Pritchard was an Olympic medallist and Hollywood actor

Norman Gilbert Pritchard was the first Indian athlete to win an Olympic medal, but little is known about his life and his family. Delhi-based sports journalist Gulu Ezekiel writes about his search for Pritchard's family that lasted for more than three decades.

The journey is more important than the destination, as the saying goes, unless the journey is as long as 34 years.

My journey to find out about the life of India's first Olympian, Norman Gilbert Pritchard, began in 1984. He had won two silver medals in athletics at the Paris Summer Olympics in 1900.

I stumbled on his name while researching for a story on the Summer Olympics that were underway in Los Angeles that year. But it wasn't until last month that I finally got in touch with his descendants, who now live in Middlesex, England.

Pritchard was born in the eastern Indian city of Kolkata (formerly Calcutta) on 23 April 1875. He grew up in India and it's also where he cut his sporting teeth before leaving for England in 1905 on business. He then moved to the United States to pursue a career in acting.

Pritchard was an all-round athlete. He scored the first hat-trick in Indian football in 1899, he excelled in rugby and he competed in numerous track events.

He had many firsts to his name - he was the first Indian Olympian and the first Asian to win silver medals in 200m and 200m hurdles; he was also the first Olympian to act on the stage in England and on the big screen in silent Hollywood movies under the screen name, Norman Trevor.

Yet, very little is known about him.

Image copyright Gilbert Cann
Image caption Gilbert Norman Pritchard Cann (R) with his brother Michael and nursing colleagues of their mother in Kolkata

For many years, my research on Pritchard was stuck on locating his relatives and their descendants. I knew he had a daughter named Dorothy but not much else. The breakthrough in tracing his living relatives was thanks to my friends, UK-based genealogist Natalie Cook, and cricket historian, Martin Chandler.

Ms Cook located the family of Pritchard's younger sister whose grandson, Gilbert Norman Pritchard Cann, now 73 years old, was also an accomplished all-round sportsman in school. He was born in Kolkata and he went to school at St. Xavier's where his famed ancestor had studied in the late 19th Century.

Mr Cann moved to England in 1961 with his parents and brother. I got in touch with Mr Cann's eldest daughter, Natalie, on Facebook and she, in turn, connected me with her father.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Norman Trevor (R) in the film, Sorrell and Son

My interest had been piqued by Pritchard's unique accomplishments - and the fact that India had claimed two Olympic medals back in 1900, a fact few around the world and in India are aware of.

"All of us were, of course, well aware of Norman's Olympic feats and his acting career with all the male members of the family being given either one of his names - Norman Gilbert Pritchard or Trevor," Mr Cann told me.

"However, it's the senior family members, who are no more, who had details of his personal life."

Mr Cann won a bagful of gold medals in track and field events in his final year in school in Kolkata in 1960. He also captained his school's football, hockey and cricket teams.

His brief moment of glory was in the semi-final of the national inter-school cricket competition - he finished 51 not out and led his team into the final which they eventually lost. The win came at the last minute and after nearly 60 years, Mr Cann has vivid memories of the match which brought him a lot of publicity in Indian newspapers.

Raju Mukherjee, a former domestic Indian cricketer, went to school with Mr Cann, whom he remembered him by the nickname, Gily. He told me: "He was an exceptional athlete. He was primarily a pace bowler, a hard-hitting batsman and a brilliant fielder in the deep."

Image copyright Wanda Cann
Image caption Gilbert Norman Pritchard Cann, 73, is Pritchard's great grand-nephew

So what is the big gap left in Pritchard's life? It is whether his daughter, Dorothy, ever married and had children.

According to the New York Times' obituary on Pritchard, she had been single and living in New York when he died in California in 1929. The family too is unaware of what happened to Dorothy and it remains a mystery.

Though Mr Cann never returned to India, he hopes to do so someday. He recalled his childhood in Kolkata with fondness and added that the conversations he had with me made him look forward to his visit.

It was emotional for me as well, having wondered all these years whether I would ever be able to connect with the living relatives of the remarkable Norman Pritchard.

Gulu Ezekiel is an independent Delhi-based sports journalist and writer. He is the co-author of Great Indian Olympians and a number of other sports books.

Related Topics

More on this story