From Manipur with love

Kothajit Singh and Chinglensana Singh will become Manipur's first hockey players in the Olympics since Thoiba Singh in 1988. Indeed, with the pair of Sushila Chanu and Anuradha Devi in the women's squad, the state is set for something of a bounty this time.

Kothajit Singh (L) and Chinglensana Singh (R), members of the Indian men's hockey team for the Rio Olympics, at the SAI here on Tuesday   -  Shreedutta Chidananda

On the notice board in the SAI's men's hostel are stuck a number of post-it notes. Members of India's hockey team have put them up, each player tasked with picking out a colleague's name at random and writing the first thing about him that comes to mind.

Kothajit Singh, it seems, reminds someone of Bruce Lee. “He's called that because he's scarily strong,” laughs S.V. Sunil. “It's impossible to beat him.” In 2012, Kothajit narrowly missed being on the flight to London. This time, it is safe to presume, his was one of the first names on the teamsheet.

Next month, Kothajit and Chinglensana Singh will become Manipur's first hockey players in the Olympics since Thoiba Singh in 1988. Indeed, with the pair of Sushila Chanu and Anuradha Devi in the women's squad, the state is set for something of a bounty this time. "We were delighted when we heard about Sushila," says Chinglensana. "It's been a long wait for Manipur hockey."

Roelant Oltmans, coach of the men's team, cannot praise his two wards from the north-east highly enough.

“They are so strong; just unbelievable,” he says, puffing his cheeks out. “Our scientific advisor loves to work with them, because the workload they can handle is immense. The second thing is they're absolutely not selfish. These guys are team players. I always tell Chinglen: 'Every coach in the world would love to work with you.' Because in midfield he's like the cement between the bricks.

It's the cement that makes sure all the bricks sit together. And Kotha is a fantastic defender. When you really need someone, he's always there. They are two great players to have in our team.”

Both players grew up only a few miles apart in Imphal East district. Kothajit's father sold blazers and coats in the city, and till two of his elder brothers found work in the Army, the family struggled. A third brother was later employed by ONGC; all four play hockey. “I was fortunate that I could concentrate only on hockey,” says the 23-year-old. “I did not have the tension of looking for work to support the family.”

Chinglensana was raised by his uncle after his parents split and life, he admits, was hard. “I owe everything to (the former India international) Brojen Singh. He gave me kit, equipment and even money. I had nothing,” he says.

But not even Brojen could arrange for a passport at short notice when, in 2011, Chinglensana was named in the squad for the Asian Champions Trophy. “I had never had one. After the team was announced, the selectors asked me: 'Where is your passport?' I told them: 'It will come, it will come.' But it never came,” says the 24-year-old.

Chinglensana missed that competition and the tour of Australia that followed. “You have to get all your certificates in Manipur and then go to Guwahati to apply for a passport,” he says. “It didn't happen in time. I missed two tours just like that.”