A Bengali winning a medal in athletics and competing in the very first race at the first Olympics at Athens, Greece in 1896? Another Bengali playing for Australia against England in the inaugural Test match at Melbourne in 1877? Yes, it’s true…in a manner of speaking!
So, who was it who competed in the first heats of 100 metres at Athens (where he came third and failed to qualify for the final) and also came third in the 400 metres? His name was Charles Henry Stuart Gmelin, born on 28 May 1872 in Krishnanagar, Nadia District in Bengal where his father was a missionary. This vital piece of information was revealed by Welsh Olympic historian Hilary Evans.
Unlike Norman Gilbert Pritchard, who was born just three years later in Calcutta and whose two athletics medals at the second Games at Paris in 1900 have always been credited to India, Gmelin was competing for Great Britain in 1896. Even though they were contemporaries, it is unlikely they would have known each other as Gmelin moved to England when young, unlike Pritchard who studied at St. Xavier’s, Calcutta and made a name for himself in sports in India before finally moving to England (and later to Hollywood, USA) in 1905.
Like many of that era-including Pritchard— Gmelin was an all-rounder and played both football and cricket for Oxfordshire. He is credited with being the first British medalist in the modern Olympics, coming third in the 400m behind Thomas Burke of the US —who also won the 100m —and fellow-American Herbert Jamison. It should be noted here that in the early Olympics, medals, and sometimes just mementoes like mini vases, were awarded to only the first and second placed.
Like his father before him, Charles also joined the church, dying in Oxford, England on 12 October 1950.
And what of the cricketer? That would be Bransby Beauchamp Cooper born in Dacca, India (now Dhaka, Bangladesh) on 15 March 1844, and scoring 15 and 3 in the inaugural Test (the only one of his career), incidentally which began on his birthday in 1877 in which Australia shocked England by winning by 45 runs. Thus making him the first India-born Test cricketer.
Like Gmelin, Cooper too shifted to England when young and shared in century partnerships with the legendary WG Grace in county cricket before moving to Australia in 1869 where he represented Victoria State where he died in Geelong on 7 August 1914.
The writer is an independent sports journalist and researcher based in New Delhi and the author of numerous sports books.