The Indian men’s hockey team have given India’s sports loving public something to cheer about with their qualification for the Olympics this year. The women’s team failed to make it to the Olympics but put up a valiant fight. The sports minister is predicting the return of golden days for Indian hockey, a prediction which as a sports lover I really hope comes true. Unfortunately, some investigative work reveals that Indian hockey has been at a low level for a prolonged period of time and there is no upward trend of any kind in the teams performance.
The last great success for the Indian men’s hockey team was in the 1980 Olympics, where the team won its 8th Olympic gold medal. Since then the team has never even qualified for the semi finals of either the Olympics or the Hockey World Cup, let alone compete for any honours. In hockey maestro Dhanraj Pillay‘s biography, titled ‘Forgive Me Amma‘ l, author Sundeep Mishra mentions that Pillay cried and uttered those words to his mother on the phone for not being able bring back a medal home in the 2000 Olympics. Indian hockey truly comes out as an example of administrative mismanagement and neglect, as the numbers below will show.
I obtained the following numbers regarding India’s performance at the World Cup and Olympics from 1982 to 2000; overall position, overall goal difference and goal difference against top three placed teams2. Here is what I found:
As one can observe, since the 1990s India’s team has always been in bottom 2 or 3 of the hockey playing nations. The goal differences against the top three teams reached its nadir in the 1998 World Cup when India was beaten by the top teams by a combined margin of 8 goals in 2 games. In the overall goal difference as well, the Indian team entered a sustained depression in the 90s, getting beaten regularly by teams that they had more talent than. The Olympic games data shows a similar trend, with the team entering a trough beginning with the 1992 World Cup, and reaching its lowest point so far with the failure to qualify for the 2008 Olympics.
So is there any reason to believe in a better future for Indian hockey ? I think there are a few such reasons, but none of them guarantee a complete revival. One is the fact the junior hockey team of India has put up its best performances so far in the 1997 (runners up), 2001 (winners) and 2005 (4th place) junior World Cups. This was probably the first or second generation of Indians that grew up playing on astro turf, after the FIH switched to turf from grass in 1970s. So it would appear that India is on the way to getting its hockey infrastructure upto a decent level. The second reason is the increase in the amount of money in Indian sport, and especially the success of the intercity Indian Premier cricket league. The success of the IPL has demonstrated that there is a market for city based team sports in India, and after cricket, hockey is an obvious mass sport to develop for sponsors and the media.
Finally, I think that the movie Chak De ! India gave Indian hockey a great visibility boost among the middle classes, which has resulted in atleast somewhat greater pressure on the government and hockey officials to get their act together. The 2012 Olympics are quite crucial. India is unlikely to win any medals, but if it can put up a credible fight and maybe even sneak in a bronze, the boost to Indian hockey and the sport of hockey in general will be tremendous.
1: An excellent read, if one wants a really vivid description of how mismanagement and neglect of Indian govt. officials can destroy the lives and careers of extremely talented athletes.
2: The data is from this website: http://www.the-sports.org I am confident about the numbers for the goal differences. However for the position calculations, it wasnt very clear which classification matches were played for which position, but I did my best to maintain accuracy.