Balbir Singh and the Indian hockey team in action at the London Olympics, August 12, 1948 (Photo: AP)
WHILE INDIA ATTAINED political freedom on August 15, 1947, it did so in the sport arena a year later during the 1948 London Olympics. For a newly independent India, the London Olympic Games of 1948 was more than a mere sporting event. The event offered an opportunity for assertion and was a stage for a young nation to cement for itself a place in the world parliament of successful sporting nations. It was also a platform for an infant Indian nation-state to compete with its former master and give vent to years of frustration and discontent. The Indian hockey team satisfied this national yearning, in the process winning for itself its fourth straight Olympic gold, having already won top honours at Amsterdam in 1928, Los Angeles in 1932 and Berlin in 1936. The golden journey did not stop in 1948 but continued until 1964 with a brief silver interlude in 1960, when India had to cede top spot to arch rivals Pakistan.
When the Indian hockey team won gold at the London Olympic hockey stadium in 1948, defeating Great Britain 4:0 in the final, much more than an Olympic victory was scripted. It was a newly independent nation’s declaration against the forces of colonialism, retribution for humiliation meted out by the British for almost 200 years, and finally a statement to the world about the significance of ‘sport’ in an era of de-colonisation. Hockey, the victory demonstrated, held the promise of being the new opiate of the masses. Without exaggeration, it was a mirror in which communities were beginning to see themselves. It was at once a source of exhilaration, pride and national bonding. The sport, for many in the country, offered a substitute to religion as a source of emotive attachment and spiritual passion, and for many, since it was among the earliest of memorable post-Independence experiences, it infiltrated memory, shaped enthusiasms and served fantasies. Though claims of hockey as the ‘national’ game of the country originated as far back as the turn of the century and gathered momentum after wins at Amsterdam, Los Angeles and Berlin, it was not until London that hockey’s supremacy was assured.
Also, at a time when the Indian hockey team was contesting for honours in London, the nation’s borders were set alight by the first war with neighbours Pakistan, the ‘unfinished agenda’ of Partition which was to lead to further wars in 1965, 1971 and continual tension since. Therefore, in the months before London, Indians back home were firmly focused on the political crisis at hand and were hardly able to fathom the true scale of the nation’s achievement on the Olympic stage. Compared to the Games of 1928, 1932 and 1936, London 1948 offered a fundamentally different challenge for Indian hockey. More so because the players, for the first time, weren’t representing British India but were playing for their motherland. This was the first time the Indians were playing for the new Tricolour and against the British, under whose imperial flag they had participated in previous Games. The significance of this transformation is best borne out by the legendary Dhyan Chand. Writing in his autobiography, he declared: “I envy the 1948 Indian Olympic team to whom fell that honour [of meeting and defeating the English on the Olympic stage]. How I wish I had at least been present to witness the historic occasion. But, like most of you, I was fated to be thousands of miles away at home listening to the radio and reading press reports.”
If it was hockey in 1948, it was cricket’s turn in 1971 and 1983. The year 1971 was the foundation on which the present superstructure of Indian cricket was built. It allowed us to believe in Sunil Gavaskar’s sacrifices and successes, and even inspired Sachin Tendulkar to play the game. And that we can produce a Tendulkar, whose family was anything but rich, underlines something inherently good about India. As Tendulkar once said, “Very rarely does the whole country unite on something. That’s what sports is able to do.” At a time when the idea of India is being challenged at every step and politics has become all about personal slander, animosity and violence, the 1971 story comes as a breath of fresh air. In 1971, did the people of India care about the religion or economic background of the cricketers who made up the national team? Perhaps not. Instead, each time Gavaskar scored a century, all of India collectively celebrated his and the team’s feats. Political parties across the spectrum enjoyed the success of Ajit Wadekar and his boys, and corporate India, most likely for the first time, came together to applaud the new champions. The national rhetoric, despite the backdrop of the war over Bangladesh, was one of achievement and success about what India could do rather than what was wrong with the country.
The victory against England against all odds in 1971 was arguably the best ever in the history of Indian Test cricket, only to be matched more recently by India’s victory at the Gabba against Australia in January 2021. The team had exceeded expectations under Wadekar, giving the game a serious shot in the arm. For an erstwhile colony that had appropriated the English game at the close of the 19th century and made it its own by the early 20th, 1971 marked the completion of the turnaround. Indians were no longer exotic imports from the Orient to be represented in Punch cartoons and written about as subjects of curiosity in the mainstream media. The 1971 cricket triumph was in every way comparable to India’s landmark victory over England in hockey at the London Olympics in 1948. When the Indian hockey team won the gold at the London Olympics in 1948, much more than an Olympic victory was scripted. Cricket had done something similar in 1971.
The victory against England against all odds in 1971 was arguably the best ever in the history of Indian Test cricket. The team had exceeded expectations under Wadekar, giving the game a serious shot in the arm. 1971 marked the completion of the turnaround
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If 1971 was the foundation, 1983 was the superstructure. On June 25, 1983, cricket had changed. In one evening, a sport was transformed into a lucrative career option and cricketers into national icons. One victory was all it took. Nothing can compare with India’s Prudential Cup victory on June 25, 1983, which altered the face of Indian cricket for all time. Cricket came to be perceived as a viable career option by middle and lower middle-class Indians. Unlike in the period of 1947-83, these social groups have dominated cricket in India since the 1990s. The victory paved the way for corporate sponsors to invest in the sport, in anticipation of rich dividends. It gave the media an event to hype, with cricket providing the salve for an otherwise troubled nation. The 1983 victory also saw the birth of coaching centres across the country, reaching a high point with the establishment of the National Cricket Academy in Bengaluru and zonal cricket academies in Kolkata, Mumbai, Delhi and Chennai at the start of the millennium. By the 1990s, cricket-coaching centres across India had become attractive propositions for middle-class households. The realisation that playing the game could bring fame and money encouraged families to motivate children to pursue cricket as a serious career. Forty years later, professional cricketers are some of India’s highest paid stars and the sport one of the most watched and marketable propositions.
While it was all about team sports before 2000, the new millennium brought new promise for Indian individual sport. And the two defining moments, which have helped transform Indian sport, came in 2008 with Abhinav Bindra and in 2021 with Neeraj Chopra.
In his autobiography, A Shot at History (with Rohit Brijnath), Bindra has repeatedly emphasised the importance of timing, a state of full preparedness before the big moment arrives. Being the nation’s first-ever individual Olympic gold medallist will always make him special. But what makes the ‘Bindra moment’ pivotal for Indian sport/shooting is that it has encouraged thousands to take up the sport despite its lack of popular appeal and television coverage. Bindra’s gold at Beijing in 2008 had suddenly awakened the country to the significance of the Olympics as an event. Indians realised they could win Olympic medals as well. It helped satisfy a national yearning and, in the process, made a statement about the significance of sport in an era of escalating political turmoil. Olympic success, the victory demonstrated, held the promise of uniting Indians across the country. For the first time in Indian Olympic history, the media appropriated this victory in a manner associated commonly with cricket.
While it was all about team sports before 2000, the new millennium brought new promise for Indian individual sport. And the two defining moments, which have helped transform Indian sport, came in 2008 with Abhinav Bindra and in 2021 with Neeraj Chopra
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With Bindra going on to add an Asian Games silver in 2010, a CWG gold in 2014 and two more medals at the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon in 2014, it is not surprising that his achievements, analysed for hours on television, have made him India’s most feted shooter ever. He had single-handedly unleashed a revolution of sorts in Indian shooting. Indian shooters winning on the world stage is no longer a surprise. What stands out in the Bindra story is that his legacy hasn’t come easy to him. Not many know that Bindra had shot a 4 in his first sighting shot before the final in Beijing in 2008. The second was an equally baffling 4.2. While we still cannot pinpoint the exact reason (the likelihood is that his standing position was loose and somewhat unstable, affecting his balance), his first shot of 10.5 in the final against this backdrop helps demonstrate the enormity of the achievement. His mind was all steel, the hallmark of a new, resurgent India.
Finally, it has to be said that for years Indian athletes came to the Diamond League and left within minutes, failing to make the final. Such has been the pattern, leaving behind questions as to why a nation of a billion-plus could never win an athletics medal in major international competitions.
In Tokyo, Neeraj Chopra, too, came to the stadium early and left early on the day of his qualification. Only this time he had a monstrous 86.54 metre-long throw to his name topping the qualification charts. He was the first to make the final of the men’s javelin. As Neeraj left the stadium, there was a swagger in his walk that none could have missed. He was there on business—that of winning an Olympic medal. And on the day of the final, he looked all composed. He was even wishing some of his competitors and looked much in the zone. Seeing him from close was an experience. And the moment he had completed the first throw, the build-up had begun—87.03m and we had started to dream. We had come close many a time in Tokyo, so it wasn’t prudent to jump the gun. Especially with Johannes Vetter in the fray. The German had seven 90m-plus throws under his belt in 2021 and all we could do was pray.
At the end of the first set of throws from the 12 finalists, the scoreboard flashed IND at the top of the leader board. It was a first for us and the nervous energy was palpable. Neeraj was out there competing and we were all competing with him from the stands. That’s when it came. The moment he had thrown the javelin a second time, we could see something extraordinary happening. It kept travelling, fast and destined, and for a nano second it seemed he had broken the Olympic record. When it landed just below the 90m mark, we were convinced he had bettered his own national record. He was close—87.58m, the scoreboard told us. With the others in and around the 85m mark, we couldn’t care much for the record. Frankly, I wasn’t willing to move an inch from where I was till Neeraj had completed his sixth throw. He has since gone better and better. He has gone on to add a world championship silver and has won the Diamond League gold in 2022. Yes, he is obsessed with the 90m mark and as he had said at the Revsportz Trailblazers Conclave, “Is saal yeh 90 m wala saval khatam kar denge. Maine bahut baar yeh saval suna hai aur mujhe lagta hai ki kuch samay mein yeh saval khatam ho jayega.”
He is the new superstar. Someone who has stayed rooted despite all the riches thrown at him and has trained with singular focus. And now it’s time for him to step up again. He hasn’t thrown 90m yet. He knows he isn’t there, despite winning all that there is to win. He stills wants a World Championship gold and maybe another at Paris 2024. And with Neeraj, one thing is certain. There will never be any dearth of effort. Be it in dealing with the global media or in getting ready for competition, he will always prepare the best to give himself the best chance. India finally has an elite athlete who is well and truly a role model. Success hasn’t changed him and that perhaps is the most important reason behind his success. The fact that his javelin has encouraged many more to take up the sport, and that we have started to believe we can win in athletics on the global stage, is the real legacy of Neeraj Chopra. With him, the Indian sporting revolution is complete and things can only get better in future.