India’s ecstasy over the hockey bronze in Tokyo - GulfToday

India’s ecstasy over the hockey bronze in Tokyo

India Hockey Bronze

Players of India react after receiving their bronze medals. Reuters

It seems rather strange that a country of nearly 1.4 billion people is on an ecstatic high at the national hockey team winning the bronze medal, which is at best a consolation prize in many ways. But the reason that the third place for the Indian hockey team on the Olympic medal has evoked so much of joy is because India had won the Olympic gold medal continuously from the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics to the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, an uninterrupted run of 28 years and seven Olympic games. India had come to believe that the hockey gold is its own because the country did not win any other medal at the Olympics. Hockey then unofficially became the national game.

Then the decline began after the decades of glory. India lost the Olympic gold medal for the first time in the 1960 Rome Olympics. Then it won back the gold narrowly in the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. After that the team had not won an Olympic medal in hockey. The 1980 Moscow Olympics were an exception where India won the gold, but the competition was missing. All the western countries had boycotted the games protesting Russia’s, it was the Soviet Union, the occupation of Afghanistan.

India established its mastery in hockey through wizards like Dhyan Chand, the man who dribbled his way through to glory in three successive Olympic games – Amsterdam (1928), Los Angeles (1932) and Berlin (1936). In the Berlin Olympics, India beat Germany 8-1in the final. And for the whole of the 20th century, India held the record of scoring the highest number of goals in a match when they beat the United States 24-1 in the Los Angeles Olympics in 1932. Indians became known for their superb control of the stick-and-ball, and their deft passing game which was described as artistic.

But from the late 1960s onward, the game changed. The surface of the hockey field turned into Astro-turf, a synthetic surface, where the ball travelled faster. And players had to run faster to keep with the ball. And instead of dribbling and passing, the strategy turned into hitting the ball hard and running fast. The European teams like the Netherlands, Germany, Australia, Argentina became the top teams in the game. The Indian hockey players were outwitted and outflanked. The Indian strengths became weaknesses.

Over the last 40 years, Indian players have tried to do the catch-up with the new trends in the game but they did not manage to get back to the top slot until now. For a teaming hovering the middle and at the bottom for decades, the climb back to the third position is a stupendous achievement. And more than anything else, the hockey medal is more satisfying to the Indian mind because of indelible memories of the masters of the game in the early decades, and its unchallenged domination in successive Olympics.

This time round, the women’s team matched the men and fought their way to the top with grit and determination. Most Indians feel that they have regained their lost soul through their return to the top in hockey. This cannot be explained in rational terms. Ever since India won the World Cup in cricket in 1983 when they were the underdogs, cricket had gained greater prominence. There was glamour and money as well. Cricketers became national celebrities.

But the success in hockey in this year’s Olympics clearly showed where the Indian heart is. It is in hockey. And a good performance in hockey is much more valued than all the victories in cricket. Hockey it seems has regained its status as a national game in India once again.

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