Will Rio Olympics bring a change in India’s hockey fortunes?

Indian hockey was awesome until Moscow Olympics in 1980, but the slide started soon after as every other nation started using Astroturf and the wins dried up


Germany’s Mats Grambusch fights for the ball against India’s Rupinder Pal Singh during a men’s field hockey match at 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photo: AP
Germany’s Mats Grambusch fights for the ball against India’s Rupinder Pal Singh during a men’s field hockey match at 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Photo: AP

London: What a soul-sapping last-minute defeat to Germany by our hockey boys yesterday. And they looked very good value for a last gasp win leading right up to the … last eight minutes was it? But there is still time and people who understand hockey tell me that the team has the potential to go far in the tournament, if not all the way.

Indian hockey is a funny story. And by funny I mean a bit depressing. The problem with the decline in Indian hockey is not so much that we miss the medals, but the fact that there is nothing on the Olympic stage that we can say we own outright. Consider Hungary, for instance. They may not be first name that comes to your mind when you think of dominant Olympic nations, but when it comes to sports disciplines such as fencing, water polo and, perhaps most of all, the modern pentathlon the Hungarians are a force to be reckoned with. Focussing on a short list of disciplines and then acing them seems to be the Hungarian strategy. That is how they came 10th in the table in London 2012, with just 18 medals, but eight of them gold. This is how they finished ahead of Japan who reaped 38 medals in London, but only seven golds. Maybe that should be India’s strategy. A focussed attack on a short list of Olympics disciplines. Maybe.

But men’s hockey eh? So the standard story of India’s decline goes like this. We were awesome till 1980, when we won gold in Moscow, and then everyone started using Astroturf and then we stopped winning. Indeed, some say, the Astroturf may have been a conspiracy by the western hockey nations to end the domination of Asian teams.

All of that could be true. But the story is a tad more complicated, and interesting, than that. The decline of Indian hockey may be largely down to two factors: the weather in Montreal, and the chemical manufacturing prowess of a major American company.

A year or two before the 1976 Olympics in Montreal organizers realized that there was little chance the weather would allow them to prepare the field hockey grounds in the time Montreal had between the preceding winter and the Olympic Games itself. Original plans had accounted for six playing fields and six practise pitches. But in fact, the official report of the 1976 Games says: “Actually, Montreal could only provide three pitches, two of which already existed, though with natural turf. One was in Molson Stadium, where all the competition took place, and the second at the University of Montreal, which was used for training. The third was at a new sports complex, the Claude Robillard Centre.”

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This was a crisis. Three pitches were not remotely enough to host the tournament because natural turf got beaten up during a hockey match and needed a period of recovery between matches. It was at this point that several things fell into place. First of all Molson Stadium already had an existing American football pitch that was made out of synthetic turf. More importantly the administrative body for Canadian hockey was based in Vancouver. There, Gavin Featherstone writes in his book The Hockey Dynamic: Examining the Forces that Shaped the Modern Game, local hockey players already had many years of experience training on artificial turf at the Empire stadium.

It was not long before someone suggested the obvious. Why not try using artificial turf in the Olympics? The company immediately roped in to help with the idea were the guys who manufactured a brand of synthetic turf originally called Chemgrass but then renamed to Astroturf after it was successful installed in the Houston Astrodome. And that company was Monsanto. A pre-Olympics tournament was held in 1975 that, Boria Majumdar noted in India and the Olympics, India decided to skip at the last moment. The tournament was not without its problems as players and administrators got used to the new surface. But by the end there was little doubt that Astroturf was ready for the Olympic stage. Official approvals were obtained, and the three designated hockey stadia were relaid in time for the Olympics.

The tournament that ensued was a nightmare for India. And blaming the surface would be to ignore the fact that the team was wracked by acrimony and indiscipline by the time they arrived in Montreal. As The Hindu reported: “With few players having even seen an artificial surface much less played on it, the Indian team...set off for Canada via Europe where they played a few warm-up games. It was a journey that was marred by infighting regarding the division of money accrued through sale of hockey sticks.”

India finished a dismal seventh. Posterity has put this down to the new surface. But Featherstone says that the general reception was favourable. He quotes Alan Hobkirk, the captain of the 1976 Canadian squad: “... the reaction was positive. I do not recall any negative comments about the field conditions [although India was certainly using it as an excuse for its poor performances].”

Soon Astroturf became the officially mandated surface for hockey. There was a construction boom of synthetic hockey pitches all over the world, except, that is, in India and Pakistan. Featherstone says that by the end of the 80’s India and Pakistan had seven and three pitches each, even as Berlin alone had 27.

Meanwhile, the hockey administration in India began to get mired in whatever it is that sporting organization in India get mired in.

India won a final men’s hockey gold at Moscow in 1980. But this was against highly depleted opposition featuring Zimbabwe, Spain, Czechoslovakia and Russia.

But as far as Indian hockey was concerned it was dealt a tremendous blow on the synthetic turf of Montreal 40 years ago. And it is yet to recover from it. Maybe things will change in Rio. Let us pray.

Also Read: Decoding India’s Olympic woes

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