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He grinned: the medals are gone

This summer, when this correspondent rung the bell of an apartment on Mcleod Street in the run-up to the Olympic Games for what might have been one of his last long interviews, the expectation was not just to meet Calcutta’s greatest sports hero but also witness one of hockey’s richest medal hauls.

After India won the hockey gold at the London Olympics in 1948, The Times, London, had written: “Hockey is not worthwhile seeing if he (Leslie Walter Claudius) is not playing.”

The gold at London was the first Olympic medal in an illustrious career. Claudius would take the podium three more times at the Olympiad — Helsinki 1952 and Melbourne 1956, where India retained the crown, and at Rome in 1960, where he led India to a silver-medal finish.

At the apartment, the former mid-fielder with a gigantic reputation turned out to be a frail man in a brightly printed shirt that reflected his youthful zest for life — a fitting picture of one whom hockey wizard Dhyan Chand used to call a sparrow that hopped about wherever the ball was.

Claudius came forward in greeting, flashing a toothy grin. “The medals? They were all here.” He walked up to a low glass-fronted showcase. “Years ago, a repairman came to polish the furniture. He cleaned up the showcase before he left,” he murmured, caustically. Claudius hadn’t even bothered to inform police.

Bengal has mourned the theft of Tagore’s Nobel prize. The loss of another emblem of pride has gone relatively unnoticed.

A jovial host, he had set the memory of the disappointment aside and settled down to recount how he had started out. Born in Bilaspur in 1927 to a middle class Anglo-Indian family, Claudius had started not with hockey but with football. Stationed in Kharagpur as a member of the Bengal Nagpur Railways (BNR) football team, he got a look-in by accident when at a hockey match he had gone to watch, one of the two BNR teams was a player short and hockey star Dick Carr asked him to step in. It is on Carr’s advice that he later made the switch.

“Hockey was more popular than football in those days. And with the railway team headquartered there, Kharagpur was a hub of sports,” he recalled. As he was shorter than most players, a hockey stick had to be cut by two inches to suit him.

In 1948, it was the first time India was marching under its own flag at the Olympic Games and for 21-year-old Claudius the highpoint of the tour was the opening ceremony. “As defending champions, we led the Indian squad into the Wembley stadium. With a standing ovation from the crowd of 20,000, I felt as if I was transported to heaven.” This was the first time he sported a turban, in accordance with the dress code. “Our centre-forward Balbir Singh helped me tie it so it would have a tail at the back.”

And when India beat Britain 4-0 in the finals, his eyes twinkled talking of the celebrations. “The spine still tingles at the memory.”

In his view, the 1952 team was India’s best ever. “It was the most balanced side,” he stated of the contingent that brought back gold from Helsinki.

But as talk veered towards Rome and 1960, his face fell as if it was only the other day. He would not talk of the march to the finals but only of the loss to arch-rivals Pakistan, for the first time ever. In the book of a champion like Claudius, you do not win silver. You lose gold.

He retained his ties with the sport even after retirement, as team manager in the seventies and then as selector.

Long after he retired as assistant collector of customs, at 85, he was still fit enough to walk down the wooden stairs and travel once a week for a game of cards with his cronies to Customs Club. And when he came to know of the London Olympic organising committee’s decision to rename Bushey station after him on the Tube map, as a part of their bid to honour Olympic legends down the decades, he badly wanted to make one last trip to the UK. “It would be quite costly,” he had mused.

As the star sportsman who had earned precious little from the sport bid us adieu, seeing us to the door, it had rankled to see someone else’s name on the door. Yes, he spent his life in a rented apartment.