All eyes are now being trained on the greatest sports event in four years, the Olympics, to be held in London, the first time since 1948 when the Indian hockey team, with more than half a dozen Bombay players won a gold medal. But in those distant days we made it a habit of winning the hockey gold, in fact six times from 1928 to 1956. There were no Olympics during the Second World War.
There were five Goans in the 1948 hockey team and that was an incentive for us to play hockey. There was also the famous Goan team, the Lusitanians, and when they played all of the Goan stronghold of Dhobi Talao turned up to see them for the Agha Khan Cup at Bombay Gymkhana. These included the ‘kurwallas’ (Goan village clubs) who even forwent a meal for the price of a ticket.
But much water has flowed under the bridges of time since then and when marksman Abhinav Bindra won a gold medal in Beijing in 2008 it came as a pleasant surprise. We also claimed two bronzes through Sushil Kumar (wrestling) and Vijendra Singh (boxing) to claim three medals, most encouraging by our own poor standards.
The decline in hockey coincided with more nations taking the game seriously as it changed from one of artistry to mere speed and hard hitting. Playing on astro-turf and a change in rules more in keeping with the European style of play, were the causes for this slide. But this was compounded by us sending officials to these hockey conferences who didn’t even know a spattering of English. Astro-turf seemed like the creation of the multinational companies that manufactured it. But let’s not cry over spilt milk.
For the record India has won 20 medals altogether and 11 between 1928 and 1980 and these include six in hockey. Few will know that in 1900 we sent only one athlete, Norman Pritchard, and he got two medals.
This time we have a fighting chance of claiming a couple of medals but it is not easy to predict them. We have 81-strong contingent led by Chef de Mission Ajit Pal Singh, a former hockey star from Punjab and deservedly so.
As for the different disciplines it is hard to figure out who will be successful. Badminton star Saina Nehwal, World No 5, seems to be our best bet. Rifle-shooter Gajan Narang is hopeful of the third time being lucky but then one can’t depend only on hope, can we? Boxer Mary Com seems to be a better prospect. We also hope Abhinav Bindra will do an encore.
But as usual, we make news for the wrong reasons and the tennis contingent is a glaring case in point. It is more like a soap opera. Leander Paes is the top ranked player and by right should be able to choose his doubles partner. But Mahesh Bhupati, his partner in many a victory, has refused to play with him. So has lesser seeded Rohan Bopana. It is for the powers that be to insist on making them play together. The grapevine has it that action will be taken after the Olympics. Will that not be too little too late? Discipline comes first and no individual is bigger than the game. Sadly, this diktat is observed more in its breach.
Sania Mirsa too is very much a favourite of the press. She gets far more coverage than Saina Nehwal. Sania is also much too vocal and even worse, her mother is going with the team as her manager. This is the height of nepotism How can such nonsense be tolerated ?
On the other hand Nehwal has recently won back-to-back tournaments in Malaysia and defeated top Chinese players. Recently Indian Express put her on the magazine cover but romantically linking her with team partner Parupalli Kashyap. Whatever happened to straight reporting ?
The story in Express says she took time to convince her mother to include a non-vegetarian diet. That she has grit and determination comes across loud a clear and we fondly hope she will return with a medal.
In the past too, we seem to have backed the wrong horses. Much too much was made of long jumper Anju Bobby George before the last Olympics but she scored a blank and was never heard of thereafter. No sport is free of controversy. It is over 60 years since we have achieved Independence. Isn’t that time enough to put our act together ?
But no. So may be by default we may have to rely on the founder of the modern Olympics Baron de Cubertin’s motto that taking part is more important than the winning.