The Flag Bearer for the Indian Contingent of the independent India’s first representation in the Olympics at London 1948 was Talimeren Ao popularly known as “Dr. T. Ao,” a Changki village boy form the state of Nagaland. On his 22nd death anniversary this year, we remember him not only as a football legendary but a devoted citizen who inspired thousands of players in India to become class players despite various odds.
At the 1948 London Olympics, during a press conference after the match with France, Dr. T. Ao, the captain of the Indian Olympic Football Team astonished the world with his wit answering to a question why Indians played barefoot, he replied, “Well, you see, we play football in India, whereas you play BOOTBALL.”
His son Shri A. Tally, take us to the journey of his late father, a story which would not only inspire sports aspirants but also in other vocations. During junior school at Impur (Mokokchung District), every evening T. Ao would go to the village playground and patiently observe the play of the older village boys. He would than practice the tactics and strategy of his elders. In fact, he was improvising the tactics and strategy of his elders which he learnt. He thus, was a boy who would not only learn from others but apply deep research and thereby improve his strategy and moves.
He joint Jorhat Christian High School in 1934, where he saw and felt the real football for the first time. At his home district, the people never saw what a real football was like. People would play with pamelos fruit or anything that could be molded or wrapped into a circular shape – like a ball; they used old rags and circular baskets woven with cane or bamboo to make it like a football. Boots and shoes where unknown. At Jorhat, he was introduced to the real football and more skilled players. He played defense position in the school team. It is said that he was such a strong defender that was worth to watch out for.
It was during his high school days, his father unfortunately passed away but expressed final wish for his son to become a Doctor. After matriculation, he joined Cotton College, Guwahati, where he displayed his extraordinary talent in the game leading to his unanimous election as the General Secretary of the college Athletics & Sports wing. However, during his first year in the college, things did not go smoothly, he was forced by an incident in the field to make him think of quitting football. He was hospitalized for months with a broken jaw with only liquid food. The incident happened during a match where a local club player knocked him down by a blow of fists when he headed for the ball. The whole year he could not play and his health was miserable for he could not chew food anymore. These tribulations in his life would make any ordinary man surrender to the circumstances. But, T. Ao was no ordinary man; he was a warrior from the hills, succumbing to such strenuous circumstances of life was never taught by Naga ancestors. He mustered courage and confidence and with the grace of the Almighty he regained his health and stamina for the game.
Such arduous experiences only made him more humble and gregarious. In 1939, after he recovered from the injury, his college team defeated the Murari Chand College team (Sylhet) – a team which was undefeatable for the preceding thirteen successive years. His leadership in the team and his skill with the ball became the talk of the town.
After finishing his intermediate science, he however could not secure a scholarship to study medicine. Thus, he joined B.Sc (Physics) and completed first year before securing the Assam Scholarship to study medicine in 1942. He joined Carmicheal Medical College, (now R.G. Kar Medical College), Calcutta. He was inducted into the Mohun Bagan Club in 1943 and captained the team for two years until he joined medical service in 1951 to serve the needy people and fulfill his father’s dream.
As a reputable soccer star, he played in India XI against the European teams after joining the medical college. In 1945, the Bengal team won the Provincial Santosh Trophy at Bombay with T. Ao playing a prominent role in the team. He won consecutive title of Individual Championship in Athletics of Calcutta University in 1946 and 1947. The next year, he was offered to captain the Indian Football Team at the London Olympics, 1948. However, it was a time his MBBS course was on the verge of completion and thus once again he was put on the tight spot of making a decision which would decide his career. He was lucky to have a noble teacher, the Principal of the college who advised him, “Ao, you can complete your MBBS even after two years. However, this kind of opportunity presents itself to you but once in your life time. I’d advise you to accept.” Thus, with the blessings of his Principal he accepted the offer and proceeded for training to the beautiful hill station of Shillong.
At the Wembly Stadium, London on 29th July, 1948, T. Ao was the flag bearer of the Indian Contingent at the opening ceremony. Their first match was with Burma (Myanmar), the Indian team won by virtue of a walkover. Thus, in the second round they faced the well trained and professional French players. Despite the French players equipped with spike boots, the Indian team without any fear of grievous hurt by the sturdy spike boots gave an equal combat and ended the half time with a draw (one goal each). At the 89th minute (i.e. just one minute before the final whistle) of the second half, the French scored a goal and thus took the winner. However, despite the defeat by sheer luck, the Indian team gave the French a good run beyond their anticipation. Despite of being pitted against professionals with barefoot, the strategy and stamina of the Indian team was so magnificent the media was compelled to ask the question to the Indian team as hereinbefore stated.
The Queen of England was so impressed by the barefooted Indian team, she invited them for a dinner at the palace which the Indian team gracefully attended and regarded it as a real honour. Later, T. Ao was offered to join the Arsenal Football Club, but he politely refused. The Indian team was subsequently invited for exhibition matches in Wales, Holland and Europe.
After the Olympics, T. Ao returned to Calcutta and finished his MBBS. The next couple of years he lead the Indian team as Captain and played exhibition matches in Hong Kong, Singapore. Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok and Dacca. In 1951 he joined the Medical College at Dibrugarh as the Registrar and in 1953 he was transferred to Kohima Hospital as Medical Superintendent fulfilling his father’s wish to serve the needy people of the Nagas – a service which was imperative to the tribal people. He thus is not only the first national soccer star but also the Naga MBBS degree holder. He retired as the Director of Health Services of the Government of Nagaland in 1978 and on 13th September 1998 left for heavenly abode.
Dr. T. Ao’s life is not only an inspiration to overcome waves and achieve success but it educates us on the humility of what we should follow to serve human kind at the very backbone of the nation. Returning to his home town leaving behind the fame and glory only to serve the tribal hill people in the virgin jungles is not what for every man would choose who has achieved stardom. He was a great-souled and a philanthropist who believed in the service of humanity and ideals. Such a man like Dr. T. Ao who sacrificed his stardom to serve the weaker sections of the society would be rare to find. His service to the nation and the people is an exemplar which the younger generations should not forget but follow his footsteps.
(The writer Dr. Moatoshi Ao teaches in Faculty of Law, University of Delhi. He is associated with Centre for North-East Studies, New Delhi.)