India's last true `golden' Olympic moment


Old is gold... At the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the Indian hockey team took top honours.-THE HINDU PHOTO LIBRARY

INDIA'S golden Olympic hockey streak extended unbeaten from 1928 to 1956, six gold medals in all without a single defeat. Thirty wins in a row had produced 197 goals with only eight conceded! No country could stand up to the marauding Indians right from the time they made their bow at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics. It was a record to be proud of.

But the 1-0 defeat at the hands of Pakistan in the final at Rome in 1960 dealt a shuddering blow to the aura of invincibility the team had created around itself for four decades.

It was a particularly bitter pill to swallow for captain Leslie Claudius who would have become the only hockey Olympian with four gold medals.

Instead, he retired with three gold medals and the Rome silver. Just two years before the Rome debacle, India had also lost to Pakistan in the final of the Asian Games.

Preparations for the 1964 Tokyo Olympics took on the form of a national crusade. The team had suffered another jolt when it was once again beaten by arch-rivals, Pakistan, in the 1962 Asian Games. There were fears that India's supremacy was being conceded to its new neighbour.

Hockey was the one sport in which India were the world leaders. The dazzling skills of our players were the stuff of legend and the names of Dhyan Chand, Balbir Singh, Shankar Laxman, Claudius and a legion of superstars were spoken of with awe wherever hockey was played around the globe. The people were demanding nothing less than gold at Tokyo. The pressure was thus immense on the team to regain the one medal that counted.

Star midfielder Charanjit Singh was made captain of the team for Tokyo. It was his absence in the Rome final that had proved crucial, swinging the balance of power towards Pakistan. For Charanjit had played a leading role in all the games till then, before being injured in the semifinal.

Under his captaincy India won two major titles in the run-up to the Tokyo Olympics. First, they topped in the 12-nation tournament held at Ahmedabad and then at Lyons, France, where all the 12 teams that would participate at Tokyo were involved.

That may have been the ideal way to prepare for the Olympics. But the question on many people's mind was had India peaked too soon?

Certainly the six-time champions did not have things all their own way in the preliminary games at Tokyo, unlike at previous Olympics. Twice they were held 1-1, first by East Germany and then by Spain, a shocking new experience for the mighty Indians.

The other pool matches were no cakewalks either. Belgium and Malaysia were beaten 2-0 and 3-1 respectively, and the Netherlands edged out 2-1. Things were easier against Canada (3-0) while Hong Kong were trounced 6-0. But the massive margins of victory for which the Indians had earned their invincible tag now appeared to be a thing of the past.

Still, they topped the pool with 12 points, ahead of Spain, who finished second, a point behind, to advance to the semifinals.

Pakistan on the other hand won all their matches in the other pool with ease. Australia, who finished second in the pool, joined them in the last four.

In the semis, India defeated Australia 3-1 while Pakistan had it easy against Spain, winning 3-0.

For the first time, Pakistan started as favourites to keep their title in the final played at Komaza Park on October 23. It was a daunting task for the Indians as expectations back home had placed an enormous strain on the players. But they proved equal to the task.

Prithipal Singh had been the top scorer till then with 10 goals while Harbinder scored five. But as in Rome, a single goal would separate the two Asian giants in the final. This time though it was an Indian who scored the match winner.

Pakistan's plan was to attack from the start, score an early goal and hang onto their lead, much as they had done four years earlier in the final.

The Indian defence was shaky to start with and the Pakistan wingers repeatedly got the better of Gurbux Singh and Mohinder Lal. It looked like Pakistan were on the verge of making the breakthrough. It was now up to the captain, and Charanjit to bolster the confidence of his men with short passes that are tapped and relayed into advantageous positions. Slowly, the tide began to turn.

With five minutes gone in the second half, the deadlock was broken. India were awarded a penalty corner. In the resultant set piece, the Pakistani, Munir Ahmed Dar, stopped the shot with his foot. Mohinder Lal stepped in to take the subsequent penalty stroke and slammed the ball past the Pakistani custodian, Abdul Hamid.

The goal spurred the Pakistanis into renewed action. Wave after wave of attacks led by the fleet-footed Mohammad Afzal Manna forced the Indians onto the defensive. But the Indians held on for dear life, thanks in no small measure to the peerless skills of the legendary goal-keeper Shankar Laxman who rose magnificently to the occasion.

Pakistan forced a series of penalty corners. The prolific Dar unleashed one lightning shot after another at the Indian goal-mouth. But nothing could get past the rock-like Laxman under the bar. "For Laxman, the ball was the size of a football. It was his afternoon of glory and fame," noted one reporter.

Listening to the radio commentary back home, millions of fans held their breath, praying for the end of the match. Finally, the `hooter' sounded, signalling a hard-fought win for the Indians.

The entire nation erupted in celebrations. The Rome reverse had been avenged. And India's hockey glory had been regained. This was emphasised two years later when India beat Pakistan in Bangkok for their first Asian Games hockey gold.

Sadly, 40 years after Tokyo the only gold medal subsequently won by India was at Moscow in 1980. But here the boycott by the Western hockey powers meant that the event was without glamour and the medal devalued. The former superpowers of hockey have not reached even the semifinals since Moscow, such are the abysmal depths to which Indian hockey has sunk.

From world supremacy to also-rans, the wheel has turned a depressingly full circle. Tokyo thus remains the last moment of true Olympic glory.