If the image is in a shambles today, the villains are the administrators
Eventful in the full meaning of the term, India’s hockey history in the Olympics presents an enchanting vista of men, matters and memories.
A complex canvas that confounds critics, chroniclers and connoisseurs alike, hockey’s impact on the nation’s psyche is phenomenal.
Nothing exemplified this more than the wave of anger and anguish that swept across the country when India missed a berth to Beijing 2008 for the first time in eight decades.
A careful study of the components that constitutes the vibrant fabric of history will reveal three segments; the period before and after independence with the third pinpointing the degeneration triggered by the introduction of synthetic pitches.
India’s Olympic journey began on March 17, 1928, at Amsterdam. Delhi’s Michael Gateley, outside-right, scored the first Olympic goal against Austria.
That moment ignited an incandescent era that lasted till 1956 in Melbourne. A six-in-a-row gold medal reads like a fantasy.
Until the Games were disrupted by war cutting two more possible gold medals, India’s mastery was undisputed. That era conveyed to the world how a sport can be transformed into a realm of art.
Ball possession, short passing and delectable dribbles capped by spectacular finish left the rivals dumbfounded on the field.
Dhyan Chand led the charge in three successive Olympics. He authored a national ethos. India’s displays during that phase elevated the whole aspect to a plane of aesthetic delight.
If Dhyan Chand represented the sum and substance before the war, there were quite a few claimants for the hall of fame from independent India.
Balbir Singh (Sr.), the triple Olympian (1948-56) who led the team to the top of the podium at Melbourne, became a jewel in the crown in his own right.
But contribution of stalwart captains such as Kishen Lal (1948) and K.D. Singh (Babu) (1952), goal-keeper, R. Francis (1948, 52, 56), mid-fielder Leslie Claudius, deserve an honourable mention in the history. Claudius with four Olympic medals (three gold and one silver) retains an iconic image even today.
Randhir Singh Gentle remains in memory for ever because of the penalty corner match-winner against Pakistan in Melbourne in 1956. This goal ensured India’s sixth gold medal.
Another name that stays on the mind is Naseer Bunda, the lone scorer for Pakistan to unseat India from the Olympic pedestal for the first time in Rome in 1960.
Then there is Mohinder Lal who etched that defining moment in Tokyo with a penalty stroke to wrest the gold back. That Olympiad established Prithipal Singh as an outstanding penalty corner hitter.
Until that time, the hockey glory was confined to the sub-continent. But, indisputably, the emergence of Europe and Australia as major forces was getting increasingly visible.
Modern hockey, a euphemism to power gaining over touch and tap perfected by the Asians, aggression and athleticism overpowering artistry and aesthetics, along with alarming alterations in the rules triggered a catastrophic metamorphosis. The churning up process was anything but a source of comfort for India.
Dramatically, the power equations changed. Germany’s triumph in 1972 at Munich, New Zealand’s in 1976 at Montreal, which witnessed the birth of synthetic turf, pressed alarm bells. A bronze at Munich and a seventh slot at Montreal (1976) signalled the downslide.
The gold in Moscow in 1980 was no consolation. It was achieved against the backdrop of the U.S. boycott that kept top hockey teams out of contention.
Since then, the podium is beyond India’s reach. Swinging in rating from six and seven after narrowly missing the semifinal berth at Sydney in 2000, India’s image touched the nadir by the failure to make the grade to Beijing.
Gross mismanagement of the resources and vast talent pool, improper planning, and complacency have all combined to destroy the edifice built assiduously by the sweat, toil and sacrifice of hundreds of players since 1928.
If the image is in a shambles today, the villains behind are the administrators. The persisting fracture of the administration from the sixties amazes every hockey aficionado.