1968 Mexico Olympics hockey: ‘Man-made mistakes cost us’

Muneer Sait, goalkeeper of the Indian hockey team that won bronze at the Mexico Games in 1968, gets emotional every time he holds the medal. It reminds him of the gold they could have won.

Gurbux Singh (right) and Balbir Singh II celebrate India’s second goal against Germany in the bronze-medal match in Mexico City on October 26, 1968.   -  The Hindu Photo Library

It is a usual weekday in Chennai, hot and humid with people speeding past to reach their offices while we enter the broad lane off Thousand Lights towards the residence of Muneer Sait. It took us a while to locate the house as the locals were not aware of an Olympian living next door. Sait is 81 but can be easily mistaken for somebody in his late 60s. He is fit, plays squash regularly and is aware of the goings-on in the world of sport.

The goalkeeper of the Indian hockey team that won bronze at the Mexico Games in 1968 gets emotional every time he holds the medal. It reminds him of the gold they could have won. What went wrong? “Man-made mistakes cost us,” he tells Sportstar.

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“It was exciting to get the medal, but it was disappointing that we had to settle for bronze. Unfortunately, we had two captains [Gurbax Singh and Prithipal Singh] for the first time in history. The team split into two. We managed to get bronze as we lost to Australia in the semifinals. Otherwise, we could have beaten Australia and played Pakistan, a game which could have gone either way,” Sait says.

Back in the day, the bronze medal received little appreciation as people were used to India’s gold medals at the Games. “We landed in New Delhi, where only a few officials received us. Nobody bothered in Madras. There was hardly anything. People were disappointed, too. But nobody realised the problems we faced. There was no media coverage of the arrival,” he adds.

Muneer Sait with his medal.   -  K. Pichumani

 

Now, after more than 50 years, the medal has gained significance. There is a demand to see the bronze medal as India’s last hockey medal came in 1980. “A year ago, I was called by a sports club as chief guest for an event. They asked me to get the medal. They were thrilled to see it. Those days, people only wanted to see the gold medal (laughs). Even earlier, when I have gone to schools and colleges, I have been asked to carry it,” says Sait.

The medal is stationed in Sait’s almirah in the living room amid his other trophies. “Whenever someone comes and wants to see it, they can.”

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Sait recalls the challenges of playing on natural turf. He believes the Indians managed to hoodwink physically superior opponents as they were ahead in terms of skills. “Playing the Germans, Australians, the Dutch and the English team was a different ball game. They were physically trained, and we didn’t have any physios or masseurs. We only had one coach, Balkishan Singh, who would take us to the ground and say, ‘Boys, exercise.’”

India’s best performance in the tournament was against Mexico when it thrashed the debutants 8-0. Sait is remembered for saving 12 penalty corners against Spain, a close game that India won 1-0.

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