Over the years, the sport in the country has had a hefty blend of every possible emotion: elation, dejection, anger, pride, helplessness, hope.
Of the 120 athletes that will strive to make the country proud over the next 20 days at the Rio Olympics, a major chunk of the spotlight will be on 16 men. No prizes for guessing, it’s the Indian men’s hockey team.
Over the years, the sport in the country has had a hefty blend of every possible emotion: elation, dejection, anger, pride, helplessness, hope. In the past decade, the last bit was beginning to die. It’s found a new lease of life now.
Despite the rich, heroic legacy that this sport carries, Indian hockey went on a downward spiral at an alarming rate. From being eight-time gold medallists between the 1928 and 1980 Olympics, India failed to qualify for the 2008 Games in Beijing. If the sense of hopelessness began then, it reached its peak when the country finished a sorry 12th in the 2012 London Olympics.
Coaches were hired and fired like it was child’s play, and controversies continued to remain Indian hockey’s favourite child.
However, in the current bunch of 16 men, hockey fans are allowing themselves the liberty to expect. The desire of an Olympic medal from the sport after a wait of 36 years might be far-fetched for some, but the underlying expectation is of a fight. This team has shown the ability to have a fierce battle with any top team in the world, to not surrender, to not make themselves a push over in the sporting world.
“We all understand that the fans are excited,” head coach Roleant Oltmans told dna. “The fact that they’re excited shows two things. First, that hockey is still important in the country, and second, that we have done well in the past one year.”
He continued, “Thus, they can have these expectations again. We’re not running away from that. We know that the expectations are there, and we’d love to give all the hockey fans in India a moment to cherish.”
The sense of optimism is not unfounded. After years of being also-rans, the Indian hockey team has been fighting for medals in major tournaments over the past couple of years.
Why, they’ve even won some: a gold at the 2014 Asian Games after 16 years, silver at the Commonwealth Games the same year, bronze at the Hockey World League Final in 2015 after a 33-year medal wait in a major FIH tournament, and a maiden silver at the Champions Trophy earlier this year.
The medals are back. The belief is back.
“Of course, it helps. If you never play in the area of winning a medal, if you never come in a final, you can’t expect all of a sudden to play at that level in the Olympics. That’s not how it works. But at the same time, a medal in these big tournaments doesn’t guarantee a medal at the Olympics. Every team out there is going to play full strength, and going to give it its all. All of them have kept something in the pockets in the above tournaments that they will show at the Olympics,” Oltmans said.
Enter reality check. A wave of expectations hit the nation when India won the historic Champions Trophy silver in June. But most of the teams in that competition had rested their key players – so had India, though – and India still could not find a way to beat the likes of Australia, Belgium and Germany. More importantly, the Olympics will be a different ball game altogether, and the team realises that they need to be at a much higher level in Rio.
“The team understands that we have to raise the level at the Olympics. We have been working on areas that we identified as important ones to improve. One of the most important things for us is to convert our opportunities.
We reach quite a number of times into the opponents’ D, but not always do we get the right things out of it. So that’s one of the key things that we have looked at, discussed and practised. Now, it’s up to us to show that,” the head coach said.
Ghosts of London
Indeed, it’s show time at the Olympics, and players do not have happy memories of that. The Riverbank Arena at the 2012 London Games was a den of horror for Indian hockey, with an out-of-sorts, exhausted and disunited team finishing last. Six players in the current team – including new captain PR Sreejesh and the one he replaced, Sardar Singh — still know how it feels to be in that position. It’s something that still hurts them.
“It’s still in their minds, and I understand that,” Oltmans said. “But it should not be there in their minds any more. It’s a different tournament, it’s a different group. I understand that its in the players’ hearts and the disappointment is still there about how we performed in 2012.
“But four years have passed since, and the players have developed themselves really well. The experience is there, and I’m sure that they won’t, ever, let that happen again. There’s one thing I can say with certainty: this team will be able to cope with pressure,” the Dutchman added.
Sense of unpredictability
Ah, it’s back to hope again.
Passionate hockey fans are dreaming of an Olympic medal after 36 years. The players themselves are eager to bring back the glory days of Indian hockey by finishing on the podium. Experts warn against unrealistic expectations, and so does the coach.
It’s typical of Indian hockey in modern times: a sense of unpredictability.
“If you go to any tournament, especially after having won medals in the past couple of years in important tournaments, a medal should be the aim, of course. But don’t forget that they are six to seven countries with the same aim, and only three can end up on the podium,” Oltmans said.
“But we’re looking forward to it. We’re ready.”
INDIA’S HOCKEY CONTINGENT (MEN)
PR Sreejesh (C&GK)