New Delhi | Tarun Gupta: Olympics 2020 or should we say 2021 was certainly a shot in the arm for sports in India. Our best-ever medal tally in the marquee event evoked ecstasy and engendered hope of enhancing our performance in future. This response of course was on expected lines. What stood out for me in this moment of joy, was this gratuitous dissing of cricket in some sections.

To begrudge the popularity of our favourite sport and sort of blame it as the cause for resource and interest deficit in other sports is unfair and unsportsmanlike. For decades, cricket has been a national obsession. Yet it wasn’t always the case. Hockey since before independence and till much later had captured the Indian mind space. It might be interesting to understand how and why cricket dislodged hockey as our number one sport.

Live audiovisual viewing adds to the charm of any sport. Unfortunately, our earlier hockey successes were not televised. One of the regrets of Indian sports lovers will be that we could only read never witness those glorious moments. Cricket benefited from the good fortune that our national team enjoyed remarkable success in times of live television. The attraction for any sport or activity grows organically over a period of time.

However, there are some watershed moments that transform the environment. Those in their mid-forties and older would recall the advent of colour television in India in 1982, the year we hosted the Asian games. We had high expectations to win the gold medal in hockey in the 1982 Asian games. The finals were played against arch-rivals Pakistan at the brand new national stadium in Delhi with the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and celebrities of the stature of Rajiv Gandhi and Amitabh Bachchan in attendance. It was amongst the first occasions where Doordarshan was showing live coloured coverage of such a big match.

Unfortunately, the result as can often happen in sporting encounters was an anticlimax. Our team lost 7-1. Well, worse experiences happen in sports but perhaps the timing made it harder to stomach. Sports historians have recorded how that defeat haunted an entire generation of hockey followers. That match is believed to have loosely inspired the movie Chak de. Next year in 1983 our cricket team won the world cup in England. Our earliest and most endearing memory of colour television in India is of Kapil Dev holding aloft the prudential cup. It was a sports changing, perhaps a life-changing event.

Our approach to sports, in general, was transformed. This was backed by more success in world cricket. At a time when our reputation of being short of world-class in various avenues was the norm when acclaim on the international stage was rare, our cricket achievements were the most luminous beacons of excellence. Limited overs cricket was growing in the early eighties and between 1983-85, we won 4 major international tournaments.

Sadly it coincided with the plummeting fate of our hockey team. Post the Moscow Olympic gold in 1980, our solitary flourish in that era; we mostly fell short at the big stage. It made matters worse that unlike our erstwhile wins several of these debacles were telecast live. This backdrop may put in perspective the intriguing yet hardly surprising context in which cricket supplanted hockey. At the same time the resurgence of Indian hockey in the last few years, validated by our Tokyo Olympic performance will seem more appreciable.

For the record the rise of our hockey has been spectacular. It will be gratifying to know that few years before the Olympic heroics, we beat our bête noire Pakistan in the champions’ trophy 2017. Coincidentally the score was 7-1. The word quid pro quo resonates perhaps louder in sports. It is true that hockey or any other sport will benefit from public interest and media coverage besides of course government support and corporate sponsorship.

Begrudging cricket will not however help. Let's not forget that there is no substitute for success and excellence alone is rewarded in any sphere. There is every case for a better facility in terms of infrastructure and training along with sports science and nutrition for our athletes and sportspersons. Two essential points for me are basic infrastructure and training to percolate to lower levels in tier 2/3 cities.

Historically we have seen champions emerge from there. Additionally, as a society, we must be mindful that the success rate in sports is low and for every athlete who makes it to the top, there will be ten who for no fault of theirs will fail. Such is the nature of the competitive sport. There must be provision for their reintegration into the mainstream. As of now, there exists a gap between the normative and the empirical.

Further for any physical, mental contest, the significance of improving the fitness levels of our population is crucial. Most importantly the idea of developing a sporting culture needs to be better understood. It entails sports becoming an integral part of our lives. We play a sport for the pure, unadulterated joy rather than the functionality of striving to be a career sports person. A society that partakes in sports out of natural affinity instead of a utilitarian perspective will be healthier and happier, and excellence then at the highest level is a natural corollary.

I am reminded of a phrase, “use whatever talents you have, the woods would be silent if only those birds sang that sang the best.” For all the abled people, please start to play an active sport. That is how sporting cultures are nurtured in societies. It will be the most fitting tribute to the legendary Major Dhyan Chand, the world’s greatest field hockey player whose birthday on 29th August we celebrate as National sports day.

Posted By: Talibuddin Khan