One of India’s oldest living Olympians and the first to represent India in swimming at the Games is a forgotten man. 86-year-old Mehboob Shamsher Khan lives in Kythapalli, a nondescript village in Guntur district with his family. His remarkable feat, representing India in the 1956 Summer Olympics is a story that has been ignored by the country over the years.
Shamsher Khan was recruited to the army in 1946 when he was 16-years-old. He was inducted into the Madras Engineer Group in Bangalore and went on to serve the country for 24 years. But he confesses that when he was never interested in the Indian Army when he joined. "One day my cousin was going for the army selection, so I just went for the tests along with him and got luckily got selected," says Khan, who later went on to enjoy his job.
Although Shamsher Khan learnt to swim with buffalos in the village pond, it was only when he joined the army that he was formally trained in the sport. He started swimming in 1949 and competed in his first tournament in Mysore.
"He also tried swimming from India to Sri Lanka but never got permission, " notes Rizwana, Khan’s daughter-in-law.
By 1954, Shamsher Khan had set a national record for the 200 metre butterfly event. The following year, he became the national champion, earning himself a chance to participate in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics.
He says, “The Indian government sponsored my flight tickets to Melbourne. But for the rest of the expenses, I took a loan of Rs 300 for which the army deducted my salary for three months.”
India’s first swimmer at the Games participated in the 200 metre butterfly and the 200 metre breaststroke events. Shamsher Khan, however, came in fourth. “I aimed for the gold. I was very confident that I would win. But when I lost I felt terrible,” he recalls.
Although Khan wanted to try his luck again at the next Olympics, he regrets not getting another opportunity.
He served in the army for 24 years, retiring at the age of 43 in 1973. After retirement he settled in Kythapalli with his wife and five children. With age, Khan developed heart problems and a hearing impairment. Having never been honoured by the government, Khan says, "I don't have much expectation from the government as they don’t fulfil our demands. After doing so much for the country, no one has ever recognised me. I don't even have a ration card till now, " he rues.
The octogenarian now begins his day by offering namaz at 3:45am. “While he watches television only when he is bored, he never misses swimming competitions on TV,” says Rizwana. Although Shamsher Khan’s memory is fading, the Olympian concludes, “I have become an old man now but I miss the Olympic days.”