1932, Los Angeles Olympics: U.S.A. score a goal against the fabled Indian hockey team in a 1-24 drubbing. India’s goal-keeper and captain Richard Allen is busy signing autographs! Incidentally this score still stands as the biggest margin of victory at the Olympic Games, with Major Dhyan Chand scoring 8 of those goals.
1936, Berlin Olympics: Dhyan Chand’s magical stick work drew crowds from other venues to the hockey field. A German newspaper carried a banner headline: ‘The Olympic complex now has a magic show too’. The next day, there were posters all over Berlin: visit the hockey stadium to watch the Indian magician Dhyan Chand in action.
Such are the tales of which hockey in this country is made of.
Indian hockey may seem to be in the doldrums now, but until the 1970s it had an intimidating presence in the Olympic arena. 8 golds, 1 silver and 2 bronze medals testify India’s great record in the sport. But its fortunes took a turn for the worse when grass was replaced by synthetic surfaces like astroturf and polygrass. Frequent rule changes did not favor the Indian team either. Unlike their European and Australian counterparts who were physically fitter and stronger, Indians were ill-equipped to handle the shift.
The change was disastrous for Indian hockey and lamentably, coincided with the rise of cricket. Media attention, public support and sponsors began to defect to cricket. Soon, it was all but forgotten that it was hockey, and not cricket, which was India’s national game. Ironically, India had won 2 hockey Olympic golds before the first Indian cricket team had ever played international Test cricket, had won 5 gold medals before the first Test win, and 8 gold medals before the 1983 World Cup triumph! Maladministration and corruption in the Hockey Federation were major obstacles to the growth of the game in India, and it was bogged down further by poor infrastructure and inadequate sponsorship. Both the national and international media have ignored Indian hockey which has been reflected in the lack of sponsorship, interest and remuneration and encouragement for its players.
In 2008, in a shocking turn of events, India failed to qualify for the Olympics for the first time at Beijing, leaving fans bereft and looking at what would then seem like Indian hockey’s nadir. Hockey’s woes are chronicled in the former great Aslam Sher Khan’s book To Hell with Hockey, and also depicted in the Shahrukh Khan blockbuster, Chak De India. Attempts are now being made to restore the game to its glory days and foreign coaches have been brought in to work on different aspects like improving technique, reviving attacking skills or focusing on fitness levels, all in an ambitious bid to bring back hockey to the place it once enjoyed in India. The results have begun to show, but the game still has a long way to go before it makes up for lost time.
The western media has always celebrated icons of the past such as Pele in soccer, but it has failed to acknowledge the achievements of the hockey greats of India. Can there be any major soccer event where the legacies of Pele, Puskas, Maradonna, Vava, Moore and the likes are not major talking points? And yet, at any hockey event – be it the Olympics, the World Cup or the Champions trophy – there is scarcely a mention of Major Dhyan Chand, Leslie Claudius, Roop Singh, K D Singh Babu, Udham Singh or any other from the list of Indian hockey heroes. All we hear of is Jamie Dwyer and Teun De Nooijer, who have been outstanding players, but pale in significance next to the Indian Wizards! This is certainly not to advocate living in the past, but to underscore the importance of a sporting legacy which needs to be recognised for it to be refuelled so that it would then serve to inspire future generations to invest in the sport.
Perhaps we need another magician; Indian hockey needs the Midas touch.
To paraphrase Simon and Garfunkel’s Mrs. Robinson, ‘Where have you gone, Mr Dhyan Chand? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.’