Regaining gold in Tokyo

Gurbux Singh with the Tokyo Olympics gold.-S. PATRONOBISH

“For me, my first Olympics — Tokyo ’64 — was memorable. We not only won the gold medal, but also proved our detractors wrong, because everyone was fancying Pakistan to walk away with top honours.”

We were rather fortunate to be born at the right time when Indian hockey was at its pinnacle. For every player, Olympians I mean, it’s a dream to play at the mega event and winning gold there is something that very few even dare to think of, so tough is the competition.

For me, my first Olympics — Tokyo ’64 — was memorable, we not only won the gold medal, but also proved our detractors wrong, because everyone was fancying Pakistan to walk away with top honours. They had won the last edition in Rome, beating us 1-0 in the final. Hockey at that time was dominated by the south-Asians and it was all about stick-work, the Europeans could never match our skills. The introduction of Astroturf has made the game quicker and more physical, pushing us behind the physically stronger Europeans and Australians.

Going back to ’64 we had a poor start to the tournament; we drew our first two games against Spain and the unified German team and were in danger of missing out on a semi-finals spot. A 2-1 win over the Netherlands saw us through and then we played brilliantly to down Australia 3-1 in the semis. For the final, all of us were charged to inflict revenge, and our manager Inder Mohan Mahajan, coach Dharam Singh and skipper Charanjit Singh gave us a nice little pep talk on the eve of the game. Charan also suggested that we should keep our calm and not fall prey to the Pakistani tactics of intimidation and rough play.

At the 1962 Jakarta Asian Games, our players had to endure Pakistani hostility and either got hurt or were beaten up. We had lost the final and I was not ready to face a similar fate. I made it clear that we wouldn’t start the fight, but if we got hit, we would hit back twice, and every profanity would be matched with equal vengeance. They had started the concept of a huddle way back then and their ‘Allah ho Akbar’ sounded like a war cry. Just to counter it we invented our very own ‘Bharat mata ki Jai’ and the atmosphere was exhilarating. As expected Pakistan started uncompromisingly and soon Anwar Ahmed Khan took a swipe at Harbinder. The latter was sent off for 10 minutes. That obvious unfairness strengthened our resolve and we started playing well. Then Mohinder Lal put us ahead five minutes into the second half.

Prithipal Singh, who had had a fantastic Games till then, finding the net 11 times, saw his stinging shot from a penalty corner deflect off the Pakistan goalkeeper’s pad. Unfortunately for them, their left-back Munir Dar stopped the ball with his foot. Mohinder converted the resultant penalty stroke.

Undaunted, the Pakistanis mounted a salvo at our goal, but Shankar Lakshman, our custodian, was playing the match of his life. He saved two rasping shots from penalty corners at the very end. Deservingly, he won the ‘Man-of-the-Match’ award.

Wild celebrations followed and the whole Indian contingent was there to support us. Milkha Singh and Raja Karni Singh (five times Olympian shooter) jumped off the stands, hysterically waving the national flag. Karni even twisted his ankle but there was no stopping him. Back home a substantial crowd was there at Palam Airport to welcome us and for the first time I think, Indian sportspersons were driven in a motorcade through the streets of Delhi and Jalandhar. Fans sought our autographs on currency notes and only then could I realise what we had actually achieved.

Such is destiny that four years later in Mexico City we finished a disappointing third even after going into the competition as the strongest team. It was the first time we had failed to make the final in the Olympics and the whole nation was plunged into darkness by this unprecedented loss. A 1-2 reverse at the hands of Australia in the semis sealed our day and the whole team was left stunned at the sudden change in fortunes. Sure of our success, the officials had planned a trip to the West Indies after the competition, but now no one was in a mood to party. With heavy hearts we took the field for the third-place playoff and though we beat Germany 2-1, it did little to lessen our pain.

When I look back now, what I find most puzzling is that there was really no reason behind our sudden loss of form. We had a good East African tour before the tournament and were raring to go. Though we had lost one of our best players, Inder Singh, ahead of the Olympics because of jaundice, we were confident of retaining our gold.

Maybe this complacency led to our defeat in the first match against New Zealand and that affected our confidence. As the joint-skipper with Prithipal, I think I should be held responsible because we failed to lift the team from its slumber. Perhaps we had peaked too early, but still no excuses can be made for that loss of face.

As told to Ayon Sengupta