One of the most ancient games in the world — a crude form of the sport was played in Egypt some 4,000 years ago — the history of hockey can be traced back to 1527 in Scotland. Back then, it was called ‘hokie’ – where players hit around a small ball with sticks.However, the first version of modern-day field hockey was developed by the British sometime between the late 18th and early 19th century. It was introduced as a popular school game then and made its way to the Indian army during British rule in the 1850s.In the next few decades, national competitions like the Beighton Cup in Calcutta and Aga Khan tournament in Bombay (now Mumbai) popularised the sport further, especially in erstwhile provinces of Bombay and Punjab.
Ask any sportsperson, the pinnacle of sporting success for them is to stand on the Olympic podium and see their country’s national flag rise in that hallowed arena. It is that dream that pushes them into making sacrifices as they chase Olympic glory.The London Olympics saw India finally take steps towards realising its true potential at the Olympics. Abhinav Bindra had raised the bar in Beijing with a first ever individual Gold medal.Just one individual Gold in a country of a billion plus people. Even the six medals at London 2012 were nowhere close to the tally India should be aspiring for. But at least it was a start.
However no story of Indian sport is complete without a look back at a rich legacy. The Champions of today are inspired by past generations who have coveted Olympic glory. Only a handful have managed to attain the ultimate glory in world sport, an Olympic medal.Yet the story of India at the Olympics begins with Hockey. Very rarely has a sport been as synonymous with a country than India and Hockey. It is a rich legacy, 8 gold medals, six of those consecutive wins across four decades.
Dominance in the world of hockey
After a rocky relationship with the Olympic Games until 1924 — hockey was only played in 1908 and 1920 and dropped for the other editions — the presence of a global sports body (FIH) ensured that hockey gained permanent Olympic status starting Amsterdam 1928. The Indian Hockey Federation applied and earned an FIH membership in 1927, thus ensuring that the Indian hockey team would play its first Olympics in 1928.It was the beginning of a legacy – decorated with eight gold medals – a record till today.
The Indian hockey team clinched the Olympic gold medal in its first attempt in 1928. India played five matches, scoring 29 goals and conceding none, with Dhyan Chand scoring 14 of them.The hockey wizard became the cornerstone of the Indian hockey team as it won two more gold medals in 1932 and 1936, completing a hat-trick of Olympic hockey golds. Dhyan Chand was made captain in 1936 in what would prove to be his final Olympic Games.
Unfortunately there were no Olympics in 1940 and 1944 due to the Second World War and that was the last the Olympics saw of Dhyan Chand. In 1948 a newly independent India had to battle not just strong teams but also cope with the exodus of players to Pakistan.When the Olympics returned after World War II in 1948, India found a new genius in the legendary Balbir Singh Sr. as he steered them to a second hat-trick of Olympic gold medals in 1948, 1952, and 1956, this time as an independent nation. The period was one of the most significant in the history of hockey in India. While Pakistan halted the gold run in the final at the 1960 Rome Olympics, India would ascend to the top step at Tokyo 1964. However, it was apparent that India’s domination of the sport was weakening. The Indian hockey team had won silver at the 1958 and 1962 Asian Games, before finally winning gold in the 1966 edition. However, India only managed a bronze at Mexico 1968, in what was then their lowest finish in the Olympics.
In 1968 and 1972 the team returned with a Bronze medal while Montreal saw the team draw a blank, unable to adjust to a change from grass to artificial turf. The pain of those campaigns is expressed by 3-time medallist Harbinder Singh, Ashok Kumar, Aslam Sher Khan and Dr Vece Paes. Hockey expanded its reach beyond the Olympics with the first Hockey World Cup held in 1971 in Spain. Though Pakistan beat Spain to win the title and India finished third, the sport was steadily gaining popularity in Europe, and innovations were underway.
While India’s representation in global hockey was largely restricted to the men, the women’s team made its first appearance in international competition at the inaugural women’s Hockey World Cup in 1974, finishing a creditable fourth.There seemed to be an upturn when the men’s team won its only World Cup title in 1975.
1980s-2008: A period of declination of performance
The 1980s actually began well for the Indian hockey teams.The men’s team took advantage of a depleted field to win their eighth Olympic gold at Moscow 1980 while the women’s team finished fourth in what was the first edition of women’s hockey at the Olympics.At the 1982 Asian Games in New Delhi, where women’s hockey was played for the first time, the women’s Indian hockey team clinched a historic gold at home while the men’s team won silver.
The introduction of hockey at the Commonwealth Games in 1998 provided another platform for global hockey. The Indian men’s and women’s teams finished fourth in the inaugural edition.The decline of Indian hockey hit rock bottom in 2008 when the men’s team, for the first time since 1928, failed to qualify for the Beijing Olympics.
Revival of Indian hockey
After the disappointment of 2008, the men’s Indian hockey team responded by returning to the podium at the 2010 Commonwealth Games, winning silver and the 2010 Asian Games, where they won bronze.The men’s Indian hockey team qualified for the 2012 London Olympics. Though India ended last, it represented a small bit of progress.
In the years since, Indian hockey seems to have found its feet again.The women’s team, led by Rani Rampal, won silver at the 2018 Asian Games, achieving their best ranking of ninth in the world the same year and qualified for a second-consecutive Olympics in Tokyo the following year.The men’s Indian hockey team has imbibed an attacking philosophy under new head coach Graham Reid and young captain Manpreet Singh.India played their first FIH Pro League campaign in 2020, winning games against the best in the world like Belgium, Australia and the Netherlands and rising to fourth in the world rankings, their best in history.
Indian men’s hockey team today displayed a great game of counter-attacking play as it won defeated Germany 5-4 in the bronze medal play-offs at the Tokyo Olympics today. Indian men’s hockey team won an Olympic medal after a gap of 41 years. India’s last of the eight Olympic golds came way back in the 1980 Moscow Games.The eight-time former gold-winners, who battled a heartbreaking slump in the last four decades, made the resurgence of the last couple of years count in the best way possible with an Olympic medal.