I still remember the first time I picked up a hockey stick and played an actual competitive game of Hockey. I was in class VII. If my memory serves me correctly, it was also my last. Being the second shortest boy of my batch, the junior hockey stick in my hand was too big for me. Within few minutes of the game, I had realised, the sport demanded a lot. Bloodied nose was the only thing I could give to the sport. I had to select another sport. My residential school gave me plethora of options to pick from, cricket was thankfully not in the list. After many days of jumping from one sport to another, I found Basketball endearing. My only association with hockey after that was being the cheerleader of my team in the inter-house matches. The game’s rich history had evaded me till then. I don’t think my friends who continued playing the sport had any interest or awareness of it either.
The last time India won a Hockey medal at the Olympics, I was not even born. As I mentioned before, in the first 13 years of life, I had no knowledge of India’s rich Olympics legacy in one particular sport. Olympics have always fascinated me, but I had accepted India’s absence, or rather dismal show at the big stage. It was sometimes around Atlanta games that I was apprised of India’s relentless and successful Gold pursuits of the past. I found it to be incredible. There was no internet to quickly check the facts back then. It took some effort to validate the fact. In the process I was also introduced to the wizard named Major Dhyan Chand; The fascinating story of his encounter with Hitler and many more anecdotes around him. Both, facts and fiction. Quizzards, there is no statue of Dhyan Chand with four hands and four hockey sticks in Vienna. But considering his legend, there was no reason why would one even doubt it to be untrue. There was indeed a time when India dominated in the field in Hockey. No nation had a chance against us. They had once decimated the USA team with a record score of 24 to 1 — in the 1932 Olympics (search how US scored that lone goal). They bagged a record 6 successive Olympics golds. I got to know that we got lucky with the 1980 gold and then we took a downhill path (search why).
“For all his contribution to Indian amateur sports, Dhyan Chand was snubbed by the Indian government to let Sachin Ramesh Tendulkar become the first sportsperson to get Bharat Ratna. If that was not enough, the organisation he worked for, and the one that does not encourage Cricket in any of its establishments and offshoots, chose a millionaire professional cricketer to award a honorary commission. One rank above Major. The wizard must be feeling pity for Indian sports from heaven above.”
Ever since that, I have diligently followed Indian Hockey’s participation in Olympics, and waited (2000), and waited (2004), and became heartbroken (Not qualified in 2008), and waited (2012), and waited again (2016). Phew! The wait is finally over. India had waited for 41 years, and I had impatiently waited for 22 long years of my life.
I am feeling ecstatic. I am feeling relieved. I am feeling hopeful. Hopeful that this will re-ignite the interest of Indians in other sports and make them realise that other sports can be interesting too. But one thing which I am not feeling right now, is be proud. I don’t think I deserve to be proud. Yes, I had always earned for an Olympics medal to relive the past sporting glory, but I cannot claim that I have been a religious and loyal follower of Indian Hockey. I have followed Indian Hockey in phases. I have not followed the change of rules, players and events with the same rigour as I have followed cricket. Sadly, I fare well compared to others. The general support for Indian Hockey is sporadic. It depends on the event.
It’s a quadrennial event. Every Olympics year, the average sporting Indian will suddenly lock his cricketing passions in the closet and take out the bag of national pride. As the games will unfold, he will dust off the disinterest and wait for the glory moments to relish his bag of pride. Those moments are normally hard to come by, but he will salvage whatever comes his way. His pride will know no bounds and he will also transcend all other boundaries of race, sex and prejudices to Indianize the medal winners. Ah, my North-eastern sisters! Hamari chhoriyan choro se kam hai ke! He will then abuse the clueless government, the corrupt system, and blame the general public. If his daughter shows some interest in sports, he will buy her a tennis or badminton racket. He will ensure this interest is not at the cost of her education, which off course has to be in a good English medium school.
“The onus of winning hockey medals lies with those girls from hinterland. When it comes to amateur sports, every Indian wants to go to heaven, but no one wants to die. How good is to hear those rag to sporting riches stories once every four years"
It will now be time to get back to the only sport he truly, honestly, and passionately understands. His argument will be, “but this is the only one in which we are pretty good at and it is so entertaining”. That this particular sport is played by a handful of nations is not important. That India has not won a single major international trophy in this sport in a decade, is also something that does not bother him. That this sport is run by a private body also does not dent his nationalistic pride. He will be awestruck by Kohli’s remarkable fitness regime. His failure at one odd international trophy event will be ignored. Afterall, one has to look at the average. Why should he care for the fitness regime of Neeraj Chopra? Why should he care what took him to reach that distance of 86.65? Neeraj will only matter if he uses this “one” chance tomorrow (07/08). Neeraj must earn an Olympic medal to earn our time and appreciation. Should you then talk about Hockey to him? When was the last time India won an Olympic medal at the Olympics?
I am so glad I have an answer, “05/06/2021”. The last time India won an Olympics medal was yesterday. Today, the women’s team almost won a bronze.
Give Hockey a chance. Give it some time. Don’t judge the Hockey team based on how they perform in a once in four years event. Yes, hockey can be fun. Yes, hockey can be intense. Yes, hockey can be nervewracking. Yes, Indian hockey team can win 9th Olympic gold in hockey. For that to happen, we all have to indulge in hockey. You don’t have to ditch cricket for that. Remember this fun fact, for every single cricket test match you can watch 30 Hockey matches.
Today, I am not a proud hockey fan, but I swear to earn that badge by 2024 though, and then every four years after that, till I am alive. To start with, how about the autobiography of Dhyan Chand ?
By the way, Odisha will for the second time, host the Hockey world cup in 2023. Do come to my state and marvel at the hockey infrastructure. Be my guest.