The story of Jeremy John Bujakowski, India’s Winter Olympics pioneer
Ronojoy Sen’s quite excellent Nation At Play, published in 2015, is perhaps one of the few books that uses the platform of Indian sports to throw light on broader aspects of Indian history, especially in the formational years of the republic. Sen’s book reveals not only that there is much more to Indian sports than cricket, but also that Indian sports culture has constantly formed and reformed itself in the seven decades since independence.
In general, sports is a useful medium for historical study because of two inherent tendencies of most organized sports: It generates plenty of data, and then records this data by categories. This is particularly true in the case of events such as the Summer and Winter Olympics. For decades, each edition of the Olympics has been accompanied by a massive information technology operation that captures thousands of data points.
Furthermore, the vast amount of media coverage means that this is an area of scholarship with no shortage of material. The intricacies of Cold War politics and political alignments, for instance, can be traced through the controversies, boycotts and scandals that surrounded participation in international sporting events through the 1960s-90s.
For many historians, especially those who get by on meagre data and vigorous conjecture, this is the dream scenario: mountains of data all neatly arranged in rows and columns. So much so that it will not take the curious reader more than a few minutes and an internet connection to pinpoint the weight that Karnam Malleswari lifted in her third attempt at the snatch during the 2000 Sydney Olympics: 110kg. Little wonder, then, that today there is an International Society Of Olympic Historians that publishes a Journal Of Olympic History three times a year.
Yet, what if, despite this meticulous record-keeping, things fall between the cracks?
Take the case of Jeremy John Bujakowski. Trivia buffs and enthusiasts of Indian sporting history will immediately recall this name. Bujakowski, after all, is the first Indian to ever participate in the Winter Olympics. In both 1964 and 1968, Bujakowski was India’s lone representative, and participated in the skiing competitions with little success. His story is well-known and is retold every four years, like clockwork, at the onset of each edition of the Winter Games. With little national interest in winter sports, his exploits make for some good “relevant content” that might go “viral”. What also helps is that Bujakowski’s story is extraordinary.
Jeremy John Bujakowski was born in 1939 in what was then the Polish town of Druskininkai but is today located in Lithuania. His parents were Halina Korolec-Bujakowski and Stanisław Bujakowski, Polish adventurers and travellers who famously motorcycled from Poland to Shanghai in the early 1930s. Having spent his early childhood in Poland, the young Bujakowski moved with his family to India sometime in 1946, when his father found a job here with a petroleum company. The boy lived here till the age of 20 or so, studying in Darjeeling and Kolkata, before moving to the US. There the enterprising young man, an Indian citizen, picked up both skiing and surfing. According to one somewhat obscure profile, he became so good at skiing that he was able to win a scholarship to the University of Denver.
Bujakowski was, by all indications, a talented surfer and skier who ached for the big stage. While there was little chance he could make it into the American surfing or skiing teams, his Indian passport gave him a chance. Surely no other Indian was interested in representing the country in the Winter Olympics or the world surfing championships? Armed with an Indian passport, he charmed his way into the Winter Games at both Innsbruck and Grenoble—and thence into the history books.
This much is found in numerous profiles of India’s pioneering Winter Olympian.
But earlier this week, by complete chance, this writer stumbled upon an obscure reference to Bujakowski not at the 1964 or 1968 Games, but at the 1960 Winter Games at Squaw Valley in the US (in 2014, Vikram Doctor wrote a splendid blog post on the history of the 1960 Games, including the fact that Karachi had briefly bid to host it).
Bujakowski’s name appears in just a couple of small newswire reports. Bujakowski, it turns out, had originally applied to represent India at the 1960 Games. However, his application appears to have been rejected for a couple of reasons. Firstly it was received too late, and secondly, India then did not even have an official governing body for skiing.
And then, the organizers did something unusual. The report in the 17 February 1960 edition of the Nevada Daily Mail says that despite having given Bujakowski the thumbs down, the International Ski Federation gave him “the honor of going down on the slalom and giant slalom course first”.
This means that the first Winter Olympics to feature an Indian was, technically, the 1960 Games at Squaw Valley where a Lithuanian-Polish-Indian man inaugurated two skiing courses as compensation for his inability to actually participate.
Bujakowski appears to have died in the US in 2010. His name will live forever in the annals of Indian winter sports. That is, if those annals actually exist. The Winter Games Federation of India website is currently offline. A banner on the link informs that someone forgot to renew the domain and it expired on 12 February. Just in time for the latest Winter Games.
Déjà View is a fortnightly conversation on history. Read Sidin Vadukut’s Mint columns at www.livemint.com/dejaview
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