It was after a long time that the entire country watched our hockey players, both men and women, as they by their outstanding performance stemming from hard work and determination, excelled on the field in the face of superior opposition at times.
After a long wait of 41 years, the Indian men’s hockey team had a podium finish, reminding sports enthusiasts of the time when our boys dominated the world and brought glory to our motherland. However, the women’s team, despite a loss for the third position, won hearts and proved that they had arrived on the big stage and would bring laurels in the future.
Tokyo has always been lucky for the hockey team; it was here in 1964 that the Indian team avenged its defeat to Pakistan in Rome by defeating the arch rivals by a solitary goal. It was the biggest moment for the country and heroes of that encounter became household names. And there has never been a greater joy on the playing field than watching an India-Pakistan match, especially when the result favoured India.
India and Pakistan have been traditional rivals and played a similar style of hockey. The atmosphere in any stadium where the two teams met would be electrifying, with fans cheering for their respective teams with a very intense emotional quotient.
The fun of an India-Pakistan match has gone since the Europeans, who could never match the skills of these two teams, changed the rules and made things difficult for players from the sub-continent. The emphasis was on physique and strength rather than stickwork. The legacy of the likes of hockey greats such as Major Dhyan Chand, K.D. Singh Babu, Balbir Singh senior lived on for some time, with players such as Ashok Kumar, Mohammad Shahid, Ajit Pal Singh, Surjeet Singh and Michael Kindo displaying their exceptional talent on the playing field.
In 1975, when India won the World Cup for the first time under Ajit Pal Singh, both the finalists put up an unforgettable display of talent. It was a rare treat to watch wingers centring the ball and the mid fielders playing their role in feeding the centre-forwards and others on the front line. Ashok Kumar dazzled the entire crowd with his stickwork, while Ishalauddin and Samiullah of Pakistan made the contest so much memorable.
Hockey has been our national sport but after India won the World Cup in cricket in 1983, the popularity of this game started diminishing. Despite having some very talented and remarkable players such as Dhanraj Pillai, Indian hockey was unable to make its mark at major international events like the Olympics and the World Cup.
The Europeans attained ascendance, but Australia, New Zealand and Argentina also acquired prominence in the game. In fact, Ric Charlesworth’s Australian side was one of the best to ever take the field, but unfortunately, they too failed to bag any major title.
In India, hockey suffered many reverses because of wrong selection, petty politics and favouritism. The legend of the Sansarpur village in Punjab got lost; this tiny village has produced more international players in the sport than any other place.
Over the years, the centre of hockey shifted from Punjab to Shahbad in Haryana and many players who donned the Indian colours for both the men and women’s teams hailed from here. What is heartening is that this revival of the game has begun in Tokyo. In fact, most of the players of the men and women’s teams came from very humble backgrounds and rural settings. Their journey to the top is a story in itself and their collective efforts have put us on the international stage.
Hockey is a team game and each player has to respect the other, regardless of all the limitations. In the Women’s hockey team, there were girls who did not understand each other’s languages but it was the love of the game that kept their spirits alive and motivated them to perform beyond their own expectations. Sports is a big leveller and it is skill and talent which count in the end.
The Tokyo Olympics have thrown up incredible results. It has been a tale of unbelievable results and upsets. However, there has been the highest quality of sportsmanship on display like the one witnessed when the Qatar athlete decided to share the Gold with his Italian rival. These games were held under the shadow of Covid and many who could have perhaps won medals last year, if the Olympics had been held on schedule, had to miss out.
New heroes and champions have made their countries proud and even for India, there have been some surprising outcomes. P.V. Sindhu is one of our biggest stars and could create new records for herself in the future as well. Olympics is certainly the most coveted platform to excel in any sport, but it is also about participation.
Every athlete who took part in the Games, regardless of his or her winning the medal, has to be lauded. The Centre has already decided to honour our Olympic contingent on Independence Day and this is certainly a step in the right direction. It would also be befitting if these sportspersons are given a medal for being a part of the Indian squad.
The Indian hockey teams should never forget that the entire nation has very high hopes from them. They have won the hearts of every Indian. Long live Indian hockey. Between us.