As China celebrates its emergence as the world's leading sports power, judging by the 51 gold medals it has won at the Beijing Olympic Games, India also has reason for some cheer, with three of its athletes winning medals, including the historic gold medal of Abhinav Bindra which could be well be beginning of a long awaited sporting renaissance in the country. All in all, Asian countries have between them won 71 gold medals. Even trouble-torn Afghanistan has a medal, a bronze, to its name.
But as the hockey tournament progressed at Beijing, many an old Indian with fond memories of the glorious teams which won eight gold medals could be pardoned if he were to shout: "India, where are you?" Many have still to reconcile with the fact the Indian team, for the first time in 80 years, had failed to qualify for the Olympic Games. Our women's team was not there either, having flopped in the qualifier in the freezing cold of Kazan. It is blasphemy to even to think of an Olympic hockey tournament without Indian representation. Hopefully, India will be there at London in 2012.
The game of hockey has undergone a cycle of change since the days of Dhyan Chand, the celebrated wizard of the game. India was the dominating power of Olympic hockey since the 1928 Amsterdam Games with a brand of hockey which was a magical art. With Pakistan making an appearance in 1948 at London, the Indian style came to be described as the Asian style.
Disgusted at always being at the losing end, a German called Horst Wein came out with a book called "The Science of Hockey". He analysed the Indian, or rather the Indian-Pakistani style and devised methods of breaking those short-passing moves of our inside forwards and the sprints of our wingers on the flanks before they spanked their centres into the striking circle. Man-to-man marking was the new formula. European hockey forged ahead as more tactical advances were made, not to mention rule changes and the switch to artificial turf pitches. The Australians devised their own style, an intelligent mixture of the traditional Asian and European styles. And the dominance of Indians and Pakistanis was effectively challenged.
Things came to a stage when India failed even to figure on the podium. In Montreal 1976, it was placed seventh when Olympic hockey was played on synthetic grass for the first time. Since then the Indian hockey team has done no better than take sixth, seventh or eighth place in the Olympics, barring the boycott-hit Moscow games in 1980. It has finished even worse in a couple of World Cups.
While the Indian hockey administration kept sacking its national team coaches, a couple of other Asian nations forged into the picture. The Koreans, coached by a man who was taught at National Institute of Sports, Patiala, the late Balkrishan Singh, emerged as the new hockey power.
Lately, China also made significant advances. The improvement shown by its women's team has come as an eye opener. Playing hockey of the highest class, the Chinese girls edged powerful Germany out in the semi-finals before going down to the Netherlands in the final.
India, who have spurned the services of the Australian Ric Charlesworth as coach, are due to host the World Cup in 2010 in New Delhi. The ad hoc committee, managing the affairs of the Indian Hockey Federation after the supercession of the K.P.S. Gill-led set-up, is still has to come up with a proper road map for the future. An ad hoc body is just that. Ad hocism won't do. Neither also the old blame game. Coach M.K. Kaushik was in Beijing videofilming the games played by the world's leading hockey teams. It would be interesting to see if the man has any fresh insights to offer.
With three Asian teams fighting it out at Beijing, Asian hockey has a say on the Olympic stage. It is equally true that the wheel of change has turned in favour of European teams. So intense is the competition to be among the international elite that a few teams who were unable to make it to Beijing are good enough to upset the Olympic order on their day. Among them is India, who missed the flight to China because of one bad day in the qualifier at Santiago in March.
Germany won the gold medal in Beijing, beating Spain by a solitary goal. Australia took the bronze beating the Netherlands. Great Britain, Korea and New Zealand finished fifth, sixth and seventh above Pakistan while Belgium, Canada, China and South Africa occupied the last four places in that order behind Pakistan. Come to think of it, India would have beaten most teams in the top six finishers, let alone others.
(K. Datta is a veteran sports journalist. He can be contacted at email@example.com).