India's performance in hockey at the London Olympics reveal a bitter truth: the seriousness of the game is all but finished in this country. Undoubtedly a heart-breaking truth, but still it's a truth and we must learn to live with it in future Olympics, given India qualify for them though. Once a global power, India have found themselves relegated to a regional side in hockey today and will be happy, from hereon, to make good progress in tournaments like Azlan Shah or Asian Games just as our footballers are happy with a medal at the SAFF Games and SAARC Cup.
It is true that the passion will take some more time to die for India have a very very rich history in hockey. Even today's hockey superpowers, like the Netherlands, Germany and Australia, will take a bit time to overshadow India's exploits at Olympics. What has been more painful at the London Olympics is that even the media lost interest in hockey as they found new heroes and achievements for an otherwise medal-starved country to focus on.
London Olympics could be a watershed as far as India's Olympic identity is concerned. An identity shaped by individual heroics, it looks, is set to eclipse the identity of team glory.
But we can't blame the media for this poor state of affairs. India have witnessed a steady decline in other team games, like football, as well. We had finished fourth in football at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, the same year when India won its sixth consecutive gold in hockey. Even in other sports, they have not flourished in the doubles or team events as they did in individual events.
Individual medals began to replace hockey medals
And ever since Leander Paes won the bronze at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, we saw individuals winning medals in some discipline or the other in subsequent Olympics. Karnam Malleshwari, Rajyavardhan Rathore, Abhinav Bindra, Vijender Singh, Sushil Kumar, Gagan Narang, Vijay Kumar, Saina Nehwal... and the list, it looks, will only grow with time. Before Paes's bronze, the last medal that India had won at the Olympics was the hockey gold in 1980. India went medalless in the three editions in between. A new shift took place in India's Olympic performance between 1980-1996 and 2012 shows that the process is complete.
This shift speaks volume about the country's socio-economic life and its treatment of sports, a key determinant of the national character. India clearly lacks a deeply-rooted sporting culture, compared to, say for example, academics. Football, hockey and cricket are three sports the Indians traditionally played, owing to historical reasons. Of these three again, cricket was historically a sport of the elites as it was too expensive for the commoners to take up.
India were a globally reputed football side in the 1950s and early 1960s and of course, just invincible in hockey. India got a chance to play in World Cup football in 1950 but could not since they had no shoes! But with time, these two sports failed to live up to the expectation. While football died a quick death owing to several reasons, hockey saw a more protracted death, again due to various factors.
Lack of care killed the goose
There was no effort to keep pace with time and neither was there a system to groom and deliver talents. The sport bodies turned into hub of corruption and seats for politicians who never had any interest in sports. It took India to miss a chance to go the Olympics in 2008 to ensure that KPS Gill, who remained the chief of the hockey association for nearly two decades, was overthrown.
Lack of interest in institutionalising sports and developing a national sports policy have been the main reason. Economic woes of a large section of the country's population also spelled doom for the sports India was once strong in. India's good performance in hockey at the Olympics was all but over in the mid-1970s when astro-turf made its first appearance and the irony is that the country had emerged world beaters in 1975!
The 1980 gold was an undervalued one as the Olympics that year had been boycotted by frontline powers in hockey. A bigger blow to the sport came three years after when India defeated the mighty West Indies to win the cricket World Cup. This win was significant in a number of ways. First, the win was against the Caribbeans, who were by far the most feared team in the world then. Second, the victory at the Lord's in London made it all the more sweet for it was earned at the mecca of cricket and on the soil of the former colonial masters. And third, it gained the confidence of the Indian middle-class, considered the main pillar of the nation, which was looking for an alternate reality to find solace after hockey's decline. I call it solace against the background of economic difficulties and deteriorating moral authority of the political leadership.
From the days of the Maharajas and Pataudis, cricket suddenly started to grow as a mass sport and the Kapil Devs and the Sunil Gavaskars replaced the old glory of Dhyan Chands (hockey) and Syed Abdul Rahims (football).