Firstly, I must admit that I have never been a great fan of hockey. However, I take pride in calling myself a sports fanatic and hence I’m following the London Olympics very closely. Along with my fellow countrymen, I have been rooting for India and after witnessing the thumping 8-1 victory over France earlier this year in the Olympic Qualifiers, one of the sport I expected India to do well was men’s hockey.
After all, we were the most successful team in the Olympics when it came to men’s hockey. Winning 8 gold medals, 1 silver medal and 2 bronze medals is by no means an ordinary feat. In fact, there was a time between 1928 (Amsterdam Olympics) and 1956 (Melbourne Olympics), when we were unbeaten throughout and it was only in 1960 (Rome Olympics) that Pakistan managed to snatch the gold medal from us by defeating us in the finals. People were heartbroken that we lost the Gold Medal in spite of winning the silver. Joseph Antic, a member of that team which ‘lost the gold medal’, while remembering the match, says that they used to hide from people fearing a backlash after they lost the match. Such were the levels of expectations from our team then. Later in 1964 (Tokyo Olympics), the Indian team bounced back like true champions and won the gold medal back.
But, that was about it. Yes, we did win a gold medal in the 1980 Moscow Olympics but that was a weakened field with many major teams boycotting the competition. Since then, it has been downslide, an extremely steep one. So much so, that our team has failed to win even a single game at London Olympics so far. Well, many great teams across different sports have witnessed a fall after years of dominance, a popular example being West Indies in cricket. But for Indian Hockey to stoop down to a level where the coach of the national team says that the players are merely happy being a part of the tournament, is a real shame. Who is to be blamed for this debacle?
People who are associated with the game blame it on the use of artificial turfs which got introduced in the 1970s. According to them, the artificial turf increased the speed of the game dramatically and this led to a sudden downfall of Asian countries that relied more on skill and talent. The physical demands on the players changed. A classic case of failure to adapt, India got left behind in the switch from grass to astro-turf.
The more popular target of the blame game has been cricket. Yes, as bizarre as it may sound, many of us tend to believe that cricket has killed hockey. If being obsessed with one sport meant suffering for other sports, how is it that countries like USA, UK, Australia etc. have more than one popular sport. There surely is enough room for various sports to co-exist.
Along with the game, all us cricket lovers are blamed too. “You guys only want to watch cricket” is a common statement made at all cricket lovers. But that’s not true. Today, sports lovers in our country follow various different sports along with cricket and worship sportsmen other than cricketers too. We organize screening of football matches at pubs and stay awake late at night to watch them, only to wake up early in the morning to watch NBA. Such is the level of adulation we have for sportsmen that we cry with Roger Federer when he loses a match and pray silently for a footballer when we hear about him collapsing on the football ground. We keep track of all the transfer talks taking place during the transfer season as though our lives depend on it. We fight with our friends over club loyalties and many of us have this big dream of watching our favorite teams play live. In fact, all of us today are celebrating the success of Mary Kom and Saina Nehwal at the Games inspite of them being players of sports which are not considered very popular in our country.
Therefore, instead of blaming cricket and its lovers, we should be focusing on some core issues like:
1. Infrastructure: India has 50 odd cricket stadiums as compared to around 10 hockey stadiums. Mumbai alone has 3 international cricket stadiums, quite a few numbers of cricket clubs and numerous other maidans. Kids are exposed to a lot of international matches due to these stadiums and they get access to good coaching facilities at these maidans. This eventually helps in creating a huge talent pool of youngsters in the country. Grass root level competitions in hockey should be similarly organized.
2. Governance: Dhanraj Pillay, former captain of the national team, has blamed the long standing power struggle and ego clash between the two parallel bodies – Hockey India and Indian Hockey Federation as the main reason behind the death of hockey in India. While this may not be the only reason, any sport needs fair and transparent governance to thrive. Hockey in India needs an administration structured on the lines of the BCCI, manned by professionals with enough knowledge and competence to turn things in their favour.
3. Role Models: Sachin Tendulkar had once said that watching India win the cricket World Cup in 1983 inspired him to dream about winning a World Cup someday for the country. That victory inspired many kids of his times to take up cricket. The likes of Sehwag, Kohli etc. have said that they held a cricket bat for the first time after watching Tendulkar bat for India. And now we have loads of youngsters and kids who look up to the likes of Dhoni and Kohli and take up cricket. Similarly, Vishwanathan Anand, Gopichand etc. also have inspired many youngsters towards their sport. Today, unfortunately in hockey, we do not have a role model to inspire young kids towards the game.
Yes, there are more issues like media coverage, corporate sponsorships, public relations etc, but that will come only with on-field performances. Today, Mary Kom, deservedly, is being widely admired by everybody on TV or the internet. The Government has also announced a cash award of Rs. 50 lakh and 2 acres of land for her. Needless to say, she has today become a source of inspiration for many parents and young kids, especially girls. And we can now hope for getting many more talented boxers in our country. Indian Hockey needs an inspiration like this from somewhere. Only then will we be able to preserve what we call as our ‘national sport’.