Despite the Indian men's hockey team losing out to Belgium in the Semi-Finals today, hockey in the country seems to be on the rise, with a near throwback to the 1950s, where we dominated the sport led by legendary players like Dhyan Chand. The current men's and women's teams might not be that dominant, but their effort level, dedication and persistence have made fans stand up and take notice. Their stunning run at the Olympics not only spurred the revival of the sport, which seemed to be taking a backseat to other sports such as Cricket and Football.
It was not too long ago that Indian hockey was in turmoil, with rival associations conducting two national championships, days within each other without brainstorming together for the overall growth of the sport. The competition between the two associations took us back to the initial days of cricket's Indian Premier League, which took on the erstwhile Indian Cricket League, the brainchild of former Indian captain Kapil Dev.
The rival tournaments had zero to no impact as it left players scrambling and some suspended for playing in the wrong league. Healthy competition is always good, but a centralized structure would have been easier to grow the talent pipeline.
Despite these challenges and a lot more, Indian hockey prevailed due to the strong structure set by officials and hockey aficionados during the 'Golden age of Indian hockey', from 1928 through the 1950s. The structure gave rise to legends such as former Indian captain Dhyan Chand, who went on to win consecutive gold medals at the 1932 and 1936 Olympics.
Fast forward to the current Tokyo Olympics, where we can see the fruits of the labour invested in both the men's and women's teams. The hiring of the right coaches, international exposure, high intensive training, nutrition, physiotherapy, and other factors such as the TOPS programme has helped Indian hockey regain some of its lost glory, beating perennial giants such as England and Australia in the process. The victory brought tears to the eyes of many that stuck to the sport despite the turmoil and chaos before.
The Indian team's performance also drew appreciation from arch-rivals Pakistan, whose officials say that there is a lot to be learnt from the way Indian hockey bounced back to help the sport grow in their own country. Legendary Pakistani forward Hasan Sardar said, "It is a big success for the Indian hockey structure...It is all about money, and unless we don't invest in hockey and take care of players, where will we find the talent from? In Pakistan, youth goes towards cricket because they know they have a secure future in hockey that is missing," reports PTI.
Pakistan's hockey federation's secretary-general, Asif Bajwa, also pointed out that the Indian team's historic run would eventually lead to the rise of the sport in the region again due to their historic rivalry.
"It is not a small achievement that India has qualified for the Olympic Semi-Finals. I say it will lead to a revival of the game in Pakistan because we have always been fierce rivals, and people in Pakistan will now want our team to be back at the top as well," Bajwa said, reports PTI.
He also heaped praise on the Indian hockey federation for restructuring its setup, allowing them to reap the rewards currently. "In India, the Indian hockey federation has over Rs 1000 crore in their account while their government also funds them...Today if you want to progress in hockey and remain at the top, a lot of money is required," he added, reports PTI.
Pakistan women's team player Rushna Khan had glowing words to say about the Indian women's team's incredible victory over Australia. She also explained how the team's Olympic campaign would lead to many youngsters picking up the hockey stick.
"It just shows the amount of interest in hockey in India. After this Olympics, I am sure more young boys and girls will start playing hockey in India, and it will only get better for them. It is just so good to see Indian women doing so well in the Olympics, and it gives us women athletes in this region hope as well," she said, reports PTI.
The added support and interest showed by the federations, government, staff, players, and fans together had a huge impact on both the national teams as they fight to bring back the glory days. A valiant team effort is needed for progress in any sport with consistency and a vision. Indian hockey seems to have a bright future taking these factors into account. We need all hands in as the structure could crumble without a single element.
Fans play a huge role in the development and popularity of any sport, and Indian being a land of over a billion people, we have a sizable advantage over other countries if human resources are used wisely and not thrown away. Smart marketing campaigns and making the most of the Olympic fever can go a long way in etching the game in the minds and hearts of the fans.
Superfans who will stick to the sport despite circumstances will always remain, but to target the general masses, we would need a lot more commitment and passion to the game from every single one of us. By every single one of us, we mean sports journalists, companies in the sports business ecosystem, other sports stars, the Government, the Federation, advertisers and a lot more. A fan is made through multiple influences, and it is a huge priority that they stay informed and interested if the goal is to regain our lost glory.
It is also up to the fans who eventually are the building blocks or the base in any sport. Their voice, their passion and their love for the sport is a factor that keeps these athletes motivated to give it their all every time they step on the field. A huge reason why most athletes dropped out from the Olympics is fans being barred.
The effect that could have on an athlete's mental health is understated. Performing away from your family in front of a crowd cheering for you every step of the way is a bit more comforting than performing in isolation without your support system.
There have been superfans who have had an enormous impact on the sport but aren't recognized in the current day and age. Former Editor of The Hindu, the late great S.Rangaswami was one of them. S.Rangaswami was a huge hockey fan and was extremely passionate about the sport and its development, to the extent that The Hindu named a prestigious national hockey championship after his name.
The son of the erstwhile Dewan of Baroda, Srinivasaraghava Iyengar, shined at the college level with his hockey prowess and was a keen sports enthusiast. His love for the sport was such that he never missed a match in a major hockey tournament in Madras up until his unfortunate demise at the age of 40.
There are others such as S.Rangaswami who have given the sport a lot more than what we thought we could give as fans, but stories like these inspire us to do a better job. As fans, we have the power to build things up and tear things down at a moments notice. Let us unite and do a better job by being better fans.
Encourage your local athletes, show up at the local tournaments when you get the time, wear your nation's colours with pride as we see the games, help an athlete in need with the best of your abilities. At some point, this may seem idealistic, but if we do put in the effort as fans, it's not going to be too long before we see our country being a regular feature on the podium.