The Indian Football Team at London Olympics, 1948, with Dr T Ao as the team captain. As per the Official Report of the Organising Committee for the XIV Olympiad, while the power and control of polished teamwork made Sweden worthy winners of the Football contest, “added spice came from the barefooted Indians, deceptively lazy Mexicans, the close passing of the Chinese and Koreans and the ball jugglery of the Egyptians.
January 28 is the Centenary Birthday of the legendary football player
Talimeren Ao, popularly known as Dr. T. Ao was born to Reverend Subongwati Ningdangri and his wife, Maongsangla Changkilari on January 28, 1918 at Changki village in the then Naga Hills of the undivided state of Assam. He was the fourth of eleven children.
From an early age, T. Ao showed a great love for the game of football. The Impur playground would be bustling with bare-footed, noisy, young boys dribbling improvised balls made out of anything that worked – rags tied into balls, balls woven out of cane-strips or even pomelos – as a real football was hard to come by. T. Ao would watch older and better players on the field and would imitate them. He had his fair share of rebuke from his teachers when his studies faltered. His strong Christian upbringing made him morally conscientious and he did not neglect his studies. He completed his Middle-English School commendably before going on to High School at Jorhat in 1934.
At Jorhat Christian High School, he gained exposure to the finer points of football and was introduced to track and field events and volley-ball. In 1937, his last year in Jorhat he won the Best Sportsman Trophy in the Inter-High School Tournament. He was also in the School Football Team and, with him in the defense, won most of the matches they played.
It was while he was in Jorhat that T. Ao lost his father. He languished for about three months in hospital before succumbing to the disease. In one of his lucid moments, the Reverend expressed his wish for his son to become a doctor. The Reverend breathed his last on the 11th November, 1935.
In 1938, T. Ao matriculated in the First Division with distinction. T. Ao joined Cotton College, Guwahati for his Intermediate Science. Soon, he was in the College Football Team and represented the College in all the matches that year. Having a good height, a winning smile, a charming personality and being gregarious by nature, he was unanimously elected the General Secretary (Athletics & Sports) of the College. T. Ao noticed that football was very popular in Guwahati. He trained each evening alongside other footballers in the field.
Towards the end of the year, an incident occurred which made him seriously think of giving up football altogether. In a match against a local club, a player drove both fists together into his jaw as T. Ao headed the ball. A terrific crack was heard even by the spectators. He found that he couldn’t open his mouth and was taken to the hospital where he was x-rayed. It was found that he had a fractured jaw and had to be hospitalized for a whole month, feeding only on soup and liquid foods. Despite the vicious attack, it was observed that T. Ao maintained his composure and behaved admirably towards his attacker. He even helped him up to his feet. It had been an ugly and wicked introduction to unscrupulous gamesmanship. From then on he dealt with such ruthless players intelligently.
In 1939, he was fit again and in fine form. The College Team won all the trophies that were run in Guwahati that year. The icing on the cake was that they beat the Murari Chand College Team (a rival college) at Sylhet, which had till then, beaten Cotton College for thirteen successive years. By this time, T. Ao was also playing for the reputed Maharana Club of Guwahati. His skill with the ball was much appreciated and sought after. He improved his athletic performance and won the Individual Championship Trophy of Cotton College for three continuous years. He also represented his College in athletics and while he was there, held the un-official Indian record of 23 feet in Long Jump for several years.
Alongside his involvement with sports, T. Ao passed his I.Sc. in 1940 but failed to get the coveted Government of Assam Scholarship to study medicine. He joined B.Sc (Physics) in Cotton College and completed a year of the course. He was awarded the Scholarship in 1942, and got admitted in the Carmichael Medical College, (now R.G. Kar Medical College), Calcutta.
He was soon made a member of the renowned Mohun Bagan Club and played for the Club for nine years (1943-51) and captained it for two years. He also represented the Indian Team against the European ones. With him in the team, Bengal won the Provincial Santosh Trophy in 1945 at Bombay. Whenever opportunity presented itself, T. Ao participated in athletics. He won the Individual Championship in Athletics of Calcutta University for two years (1946 and 1947).
While in Medical College that T. Ao was offered to Captain the Indian Football Team to the London Olympics, 1948. At the Opening Ceremony, on the 29th of July at Wembly Stadium, London, T. Ao was the Flag Bearer for the Indian Contingent. Their first match was with the Burmese Football Team but the Indians were given a walkover. So they went on to meet the French Team. The score stood at 1-1 till France scored the winner at the 89th minute. The French had been given a run for their money – and that, too, by the barefooted Indians! At a press conference, shortly after, the Indians were asked why they played barefooted. The ever witty T. Ao said, “Well, you see, we play football in India, whereas you play BOOTBALL!” There was a roar of approval from the British crowd who loved a ready wit! The next day, that comment was splashed in the newspapers of London.
The British were highly impressed by the barefooted Indian footballers and the Team was invited to a dinner by none other than the Queen of England. While there, T. Ao was offered to join the Arsenal Football Club but he politely declined. Thereafter, the Indian Football Team went on to play a number of exhibition matches in Wales and later, in Holland, Europe. People were really curious and eager to watch these barefooted players in action.
T. Ao completed his MBBS in 1950 and became the first Naga to do so. In 1951, as Captain, he led the Indian Football Team on a tour to the Far East. They played exhibition matches in Hong Kong, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Bangkok and Dacca. It was also his final year in playing active football for Mohun Bagan.
The next year, declining an offer to become a Captain (Medical Corps) in the Indian Army, he joined the Medical College at Dibrugarh as Registrar (ENT). In 1953, while Nagaland was still a part of Assam, the Government posted him as Medical Superintendent to the Kohima Hospital, where he treated, operated on and cured patients. When Nagaland attained Statehood in 1963, Dr. T. Ao became the first Naga Director of Health Services and held this post till retirement in 1978. Though in service, his zeal for sports did not diminish. He encouraged local football talents, organized the Medical Football Team and took a keen interest in local tournaments. In 1968 he was selected a member of the All India Football Selection Committee. He became a member of the All India Council of Sports and the Nagaland Sports Council. He picked up the game of badminton in his later years and was a member of the Nagaland Badminton Association.
Dr. T. Ao married a Staff Nurse, Deikim Doungel, whom he met in Kohima and married in 1956. They were blessed with four children – two daughters and two sons. He passed away after a brief illness on 13th September 1998, leaving behind a legacy of laudable achievements. At a time when there were practically no facilities or infrastructure available, Dr. T. Ao set an example of a man whose hard work and commitment propelled him towards achieving excellence in the twin disciplines of sports and academics. It is hoped that the people of the North East will keep alive the memory of this legendary sportsman to serve as an inspiration for future generations.
This was what Dr. T. Ao had to say of sports – “Sports play a very important role in Education. Generally, people consider Sports to be something not important and this to be a mere adjunct to the education system. A sound education system should not base solely upon the development of the mind but it should be based on development of the body also. The fact that sports can play an important role in the education system can hardly be challenged; sports is potentially an integral part of it. Sports is considered the universal language which infuses in the people a sense of national solidarity.” (Excerpt from his article, “Sports”)