If there is one sport that is synonymous with India at the Olympics, it is field hockey. No other sport has given India so much glory on the global stage, not even cricket. The nation still holds the record of most hockey Olympic golds. Also notable is the fact that the sport has given a chance to all sections of Indian society, from royalty to rural and tribal, both men and women. And still does.
Today on Independence Day, we take a closer look at each of India’s 8 Olympic triumphs. Even after decades, these continue to inspire each and every Indian sports fan.
The Indian team made their Olympic debut at Amsterdam 1928 and got immediate success. It was also the Olympic debut of a certain Dhyan Chand, a player famed to have magical, bordering-on-supernatural skills.
Such was the dominance of the Indian team in pre-Olympic competitions that defending champions and India’s colonial rulers Great Britain refused to send a team fearing humiliation from the colony.
Favourites India captained by Jaipal Singh were the winners after beating hosts Netherlands 3-0 in the final in front of a packed stadium. This was the first-ever Olympic gold won by India. India in fact did not concede a single goal throughout the tournament, to goalkeeper Richard Allen’s credit. Dhyan Chand scored the most goals of the competition, 14. India in all scored 29 goals.
1932 Los Angeles
India retained their Olympic gold at the 1932 Games. The tournament curiously had only three teams, India, Japan and hosts USA. India were the clear favourites and did not disappoint their supporters.
India’s goal margins are the most memorable aspects of these Games. India beat Japan 11-1 and the USA 24-1 in the final. There is an anecdote about the goal conceded in the latter match- apparently goalkeeper Richard Allen was signing autographs behind the goal post while the defenders were taking a break! The 24-1 scoreline still remains an Olympic record.
India were captained by Lal Bokhari. 15 of India’s 35 goals were scored by Roop Singh and 10 by his brother Dhyan Chand.
This is the tournament that truly immortalized the legend of Dhyan Chand. The story goes how Dhyan Chand and his team of Indians routed Nazi Germany 8-1 in the finals, stunning the home crowd and their dictator Adolf Hitler himself.
Berlin 1936 marked a hat-trick of Olympic triumphs for India. These were the final Games for many players including Dhyan Chand. The team was deprived of further victories because of World War 2.
India scored a total of 38 goals and conceded just 1.
The post-War period saw massive changes taking over the world. India, though now independent, underwent a horrific partition. Sports too would not be untouched by the churning happening in the rest of the world. The subcontinent’s hockey legacy was now in the hands of 2 countries, India and Pakistan.
A few players who had represented India in the past, such as 1932 captain Bokhari, migrated to Pakistan. Anglo-Indian and British players left India for Great Britain.
Despite these problems, a new-look Indian team still remained triumphant in the first Olympics after the War. Replacing stalwarts like Dhyan Chand were a group of youngsters led by Kishan Lal and KD Singh ‘Babu’. Balbir Singh Sr. was the greatest discovery of these Games.
Great Britain, facing India for the first time in Olympic hockey, were routed 0-4 in the finals. This was independent India’s first gold medal and the first time the Olympics witnessed India’s tricolour and National Anthem. A fictionalized account of India’s 1948 campaign was depicted in the 2018 Bollywood movie ‘Gold’.
The Indian team continued their relentless run at Helsinki 1952. India were captained this time by the legendary KD Singh ‘Babu’.
India first beat Austria 4-0 in the quarters, followed by a 3-1 win over Great Britain in the semis. In the finals India thrashed Netherlands 6-1. The top goalscorer was Balbir Singh Sr. who scored 9 of the 13 Indian goals at the tournament.
Khashaba Jadhav won independent India’s first individual medal, a bronze in wrestling at Helsinki 1952. This, added to India’s hockey gold made these Games India’s most successful Olympics ever, a record which remained for decades.
Melbourne 1956 made it three golds in a row for Indian captain Balbir Singh Sr. Balbir, Randhir Singh Gentle, Ranganathan Francis and Leslie Claudius joined Dhyan Chand and Richard Allen in the list of Indian triple-gold medalists.
India yet again did not concede a single goal and scored 38 goals in return. Udham Singh was the top scorer with 15 goals.
In the finals, India faced Pakistan for the first time in Olympic history. The match saw both teams competing barefoot. India won 1-0 thanks to a goal by Randhir Singh Gentle. The 1956 Games were to be the last in the streak of 6 successive golds for India.
Rome 1960 saw India losing their Olympic supremacy for the first time. The team had to settle for silver while rivals Pakistan won their first-ever gold.
Tokyo 1964 provided a revenge of sorts for the Indian team. India beat Pakistan 1-0 in the gold-medal match, the third successive Olympic final between the two nations.
This time however, India were not as dominant as before though still comfortable winners. The hockey world was changing. Unlike the rampaging runs in their previous victories, the 1964 team drew 2 matches with Germany and Spain in the group stage and conceded 5.goals in response to 22 scored.
The team was captained by Charanjit Singh. After 1964, Udham Singh and Leslie Claudius became the only Indians with four Olympic medals (3 golds and a silver). These Games would also sadly prove to be the last hurrah for Indian hockey’s golden generation.
Indian hockey started it’s steady decline after 1964. India had ceded it’s dominance to countries like Germany, Australia and Pakistan during the 1970s though the team still possessed supremely talented players. The World Cup win of 1975 is a testament to the fact even though Montreal 1976 was a big debacle for the team.
India were considered the favourites for the 1980 Olympic tournament considering only 6 nations were competing. Most Western countries and Pakistan had supported the US-led boycott of the USSR and Moscow 1980 The strongest competition India faced was from Spain.
Even so, India drew with Spain and Poland during the group stage and faced the former in the finals. Despite the criticism directed at the team, the players kept their nerves in the end. The gold-medal match was a thrilling contest which India won 4-3. Vasudevan Bhaskaran was the captain of the team. Surinder Singh Sodhi was the top goalscorer with 16 goals.
Another highlight of these Games was the women’s tournament. Indian women, competing at an Olympics for the first time, came a heartbreaking fourth.
1980 was the last time India won an Olympic gold. Though many great players have represented India since then, an Olympic medal has remained elusive. It is hoped that with the recent resurgence of hockey in the country, led by players like Manpreet Singh and Rani Rampal, India can get back to the Olympic podium once again.