It has been a mixed bag for India at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. After the great start that saw Mirabai Chanu win a silver medal on the the very second day in women’s weightlifting, a virtual drought followed with only Lovlina Borgohain and P V Sindhu remaining in contention for podium finishes. While Lovlina is assured of a medal by virtue of having reached the semifinals in women’s welterweight boxing, Sindhu justified her current ranking by clinching a bronze medal. But the surprise among the pack was the hockey side, that has created a sensation by punching way above its weight to emerge as a big hope for one more medal.
Till the turn of this century, India’s success in Olympics was limited to field hockey, a game where we once used to lord over other sides, but had fallen by the way side during the last four-and-a-half decades. Hence it is only natural that there is some amount of nostalgia whenever one hears news reports of the national side doing well. From the time we made a beginning at Amsterdam in 1928 till Moscow Olympics in 1980, all the medals won by the country, barring the bronze bagged by D K Jadhav in weight lifting in Helsinki in 1952, had come from this game. In fact, out of the 28 medals won by the nation in Olympics till the commencement of the present edition, 11 had come from this sport, including eight gold medals.
During the days prior to World War II, no country stood a chance to even come near India, let alone attempt to beat them. This fact could be appreciated from the margins with which the side won matches in these games. In the Los Angeles Games of 1932, India defeated Japan and the United States of America by margins of 11-1 and 24-1 the latter still remaining as the largest margin of win in the history of the Games. Those were the days when Dhyan Chand, popularly known as the “wizard of hockey”, mesmerised opponents and crowds alike with his magical prowess with the hockey stick. He appeared to have the ball glued to his stick and his defence splitting passes would open up easy scoring opportunities for his brother Roop SIngh, who incidentally scored 10 goals against the US. Dhyan Chand himself led the team at Berlin Olympics in 1936, where also India won the gold medal effortlessly.
The years lost due to World war II ensured that an Olympic turf would not witness the magic of Dhyan Chand again. But India’s supremacy of India in this event continued even after the war and partition of sub continent in 1947. India won the gold medal in 1948, defeating the hosts Great Britain and retained this position with ease at Helsinki four years later, besting Netherlands, both with convincing margins. During this phase India was served well by Balbir Singh (Sr), who scored five goals in the finals in 1952, and by other greats as K D Singh (Babu), Leslie Claudius and R S Gentle.
India faced the first major challenge to their hegemony in hockey in 1956, when they won 1-0 in a closely fought final against Pakistan. But Pakistan made amends four years later at Rome when they defeated India by a similar margin to push us away from the central spot on the winner’s podium for the first time ever. Though India came back strongly at Tokyo to wrest back the gold winning a tense match by a 1-0 margin, this was to prove to be only a flash in the pan as we were relegated to the third place both at Mexico and Munich Games that followed, in 1968 and 1972.
A World Championship in hockey was held for the first time ever in Barcelona in 1971, where India finished third. This was followed by the next edition in Amsterdam in 1973, where India lost the finals to the hosts in a penalty shootout. And when India finally won the championship in 1975 at Kuala Lumpur in 1975, defeating Pakistan 2-1 in the finals, there was jubilation all round as this created the optimism that the golden days of Indian hockey were around the corner yet again. The presence of outstanding players such as Ajitpal SIngh, Ashok Kumar, Belimoga Govinda and M P Ganesh was the reason behind this resurgence of the side.
However, this was to prove to be a false dawn. Indian hockey plunged to new depths in the Montreal Games held in 1976, finishing a lowly seventh. In the World Cup that followed in 1978, India finished fifth, failing to qualify for the last-four stage. The gold medal at Moscow in 1980 did not have much sheen as all the major hockey playing nations - Australia, West Germany, Netherlands and Pakistan - had boycotted the Games.
India has not won a medal in Olympic hockey since 1980; nor have they been among the first three places in World Cup championships. Even at Asian Games, where we were assured of at least a silver, medals dried up with newcomers like South Korea marching ahead of us confidently. The only solace was a gold at the Bangkok Asiad in 1998, where South Korea were the opponents in finals. There was even the ignominy of not qualifying for the Olympics in 2008. Four years later we made it to the Olympics but returned with last position. India, however, won the Asian Games gold in 2014. The performance was average at Rio in 2016, where we qualified for the knockout stage, but lost to Belgium in the quarterfinals.
What are the reasons for this sudden decline of Indian hockey and the difficulties in coming out of it? The rout in Montreal Olympics and the poor performances during the years immediately thereafter could be blamed on the introduction of astro turf surfaces for playing the game. The artificial surface made the game faster, which favoured European sides and Australia, who relied more on speed and power. This also worked to the disadvantage of teams like India and Pakistan who depended on their dribbling skills and ability to retain the ball for longer periods. Further, the increased dependence on physical prowess also went against India as our players did not possess the fitness levels of their counterparts from the western world.
The long passes and reliance on physical strength took away some of the charm and beauty of the game, but helped countries that had hitherto not been strong in this game, such as South Korea, Belgium and Argentina, to reach the top echelon. This, coupled with the sudden surge in popularity of cricket in India from the 1980s onwards, led to a steep drop in the talent pool available within the country. Sansarpur village in Jallandhar district of Punjab was once known as the nursery of Indian hockey, having produced more than 300 national level players and 14 Olympians. But the advent of astro turf and fading interest in the game affected even this village, where not many youngsters take up the game presently.
Finally, the poor state of affairs of the controlling administrative body for the game in the country also affected the performance of the national side. It is no coincidence that Indian Hockey Federation (IHF) was properly run till 1973, but fell a victim of wrangling among the officials after that. Matters reached such a pass that secretary of IHF was forced to resign after being accused of corruption by a television channel in April, 2008. Indian Olympic Association moved quickly and suspended the operations of the IHF in the same month. The successor body named Hockey India presently carries the responsibility of promoting and running the game within the country.
At Tokyo, India started off well with a facile win over New Zealand but tumbled to a big defeat at the hands of Australia in the very next match. However, the side recovered to record victories against Spain, Argentina and Japan to set up the quarterfinal clash against Great Britain. The manner in which side won the game in the last-eight stage raises hopes that a place in the final might well on the cards.
Will the Manpreeet Singh-led side reach the final in Tokyo? I am an eternal optimist when it comes to sporting events where India is participating but decided to follow the advice of a good friend who suggested that it will be better to stay in the moment, without looking too far ahead. This policy has yielded dividends though from now onwards one will look forward to the side’s matches with more hope and anticipation.
It is too early to hazard a guess whether this performance signals the renaissance of Indian hockey. Here again, past experience suggests that guarded optimism is a better option than raising one’s hopes sky high. It can be said with certainty that a podium finish will certainly help to sustain the game in our country and encourage more youngsters to take it up. The real challenge will be for the administrators to harness the talent and potential available in the country and create a top drawer side. Let us hope that Hockey India rises to this momentous task and creates the required system and infrastructure for developing a team of world champions.
(The author is a former international cricket umpire and a senior bureaucrat)