Both Indian men’s and women’s Hockey team have qualified for the Semi-finals in the ongoing Tokyo Olympics 2020. The rise to the top hasn’t been easy and not many would have given them a chance but so far both contingents have managed to capture the imagination of 1.3 billion Indians with their passion, gameplay, courage and heart.
There was a time when India used to dominate the sport. The men’s team won six consecutive golds from 1928 to 1956 but has added only two more since. The golden run of the Indian Hockey came to a halt at the 1960 Olympics but the team managed to convert the color of the medal in the next quadrennial event in Tokyo. However, it was the Mexico Olympics 1968 where the team went down against Australia in the Semi-Final and settled for a Bronze.
The Mexico Olympics also marked the beginning of a downfall, a downfall that was manufactured entirely by the politics of Indian Hockey Federation (IHF). Ahead of the event, the IHF dropped experienced captain and full-back Gurbux Singh from the squad and replaced him with Prithipal Singh as the captain. The team that had gelled so well together in the Olympic cycle under Gurbux, beating Pakistan at the previous Asian games was suddenly left without their inspirational leader.
The Pakistan-born Gurbux Singh didn’t sit quietly and made his disappointment public. This forced IHF to name joint-captains for the Olympics for the first time in the team’s history. The team comprising of several talented individuals did try its best to overcome the adversity as animosity and several flared egos in the camp threatened to derail the campaign. And unfortunately, the worst came true. On the big stage, the team from down under, exploited India’s vulnerability and made them pay for it.
This was the time when Hockey became global as well. Nations across the globe started to up their game. And then came the International Hockey Federation (FIH) decision to make synthetic Astroturf the mandatory playing surface for international hockey tournaments. There is no beating around the bush that in the early years of the competition, Indian players who had plied their trade born and bred, playing on the grass were virtually unbeatable. However, the hard surface Astroturf was a different kettle of fish and Indian players were found wanting.
The 1976 Olympics in Montreal was the first time when India returned empty handed from the world stage. The reason was simply the introduction of AstroTurf’s as the Indians found it difficult to compete. The IHF should have lobbied hard to scrap the proposal but embroiled in the domestic politics, the top body did nothing and ever since then, the game has been played on the artificial surfaces.
Laying down Astroturf was an expensive affair, one which the subcontinent nations could not afford to do. However, the European nations like Netherlands, Germany, Belgium and others like Australia had hundreds of such grounds and they managed to seize the advantage. The skill factor that used to tip the scale in Indian hockey player’s side was now replaced by the sheer physicality and prowess required to win the Hockey games. Something which the big European players had in abundance.
In between the Tokyo Olympics and the first AstroTurf Olympics at Montreal, the IHF went through a series of events that led to complete chaos in the apex body. Ashwani Kumar, the IHF President owing to the feuds with players was forced to resign in 1973. Suddenly there was a power vacuum and two leaders in Prem Nath Sahni an Indian Administrative Service and MAM Ramaswamy, a rich millionaire divided the organization into two blocs, the Northern and Southern blocs. The tug of war between the two factions led to the lowering of the standards on the field as well.
In the Bangkok Asian Games 1998, India won the gold medal after 32 years under the leadership of Dhanraj Pillai. However, such was the extent of toxic politics in the IHF camp that soon after Pillai was dropped from the team simply because he demanded better facilities for the players.
The downward spiral of Indian Hockey continued and hit rock bottom in 2008 when Indian failed to qualify for the Beijing Olympics, for the first time in its history. The immediate repercussion were borne by KPS Gill, whose 15-year tenure as the hockey boss came to an unceremonious end with the Indian Olympic Association removing him by suspending the IHF and appointing an ad-hoc committee.
To clean the mess made by the IHF, Hockey India was formed and recognized by the Ministry of Youth Affairs & Sports. However, introduction of Hockey India could also not provide any immediate results. At the 2012 London Olympics, India’s hockey team finished last in a field of 12.
However, then came the year 2014 and the wheels finally started to turn. Several important changes were introduced in hockey in this year. Government of Odisha, whose administration was in the hands of Naveen Patnaik turned his attention towards Hockey when all big political leaders were running after Cricket. Dilip Tirkey, a legend of the game joined Patnaik’s party and together the duo started the process of betterment of Indian hockey.
Not only this, Dilip also appealed to Patnaik to encourage the construction of Hockey related infrastructure. As a result, Odisha went ahead to take over the responsibility of hosting not only the Champions Trophy 2014 and the FIH World Hockey League Finals 2017 but also offered to host the 2018 World Cup. Given the history of natural disasters in Odisha, people doubted the success of these tournaments but now that we look back, every single of those tournaments contributed to success.
Reported by TFI, Odisha in 2018 created history by becoming the first state to openly sponsor an Indian sports team ever. In a mega event attended by both the Indian hockey teams [men and women], apart from top Hockey India officials, Indian Olympic Association and then FIH President Narinder Dhruv Batra, the CM of Odisha Naveen Patnaik decided to fully sponsor the Indian hockey teams for the next five years.
After the exploits of the Women’s Hockey team against Australia earlier this morning, Patnaik took to Twitter to share his excitement. Perhaps his joy and passion for the sport was the reason that Hockey was able to resuscitate itself in India.