The first and last time India played basketball at the Olympics

Basketball has ceased to make a significant mark in India compared to other popular sports in the country. In recent days, Indian basketball remains out of discussions of major world tournaments, and India has been one of the weaker teams at the Asian level too. India’s hopes to play its maiden FIBA World Cup are bleak after they succumbed a group stage defeat against Syria at the 2019 FIBA World Cup Asian qualifiers.

However, almost four decades ago, Indian men’s basketball team scripted history by qualifying for the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. Despite being ranked 58th in the world, the talented crop of Indian basketball stars were the unlikely entrants in the Olympics.

That was first as well as the last time India could field a basketball team in the Olympics. The event concluded with a last-place finish for the Indian squad who wasn’t even expected to be there, but a series of topsy-turvy political breakdowns landed them among the final 12 men’s basketball teams.

1980 Moscow: Most controversial Olympics ever

The Soviet Union led a military invasion in Afghanistan during late 1979. In retaliation, the United States decided to boycott Olympics in the Russian capital of Moscow and withdraw their athletes.

The decision advocated by the then US President Jimmy Carter had gained major support from other nations and they also withdrew their names from the Olympics. China, Japan, South Korea and the Philippines followed the footsteps of the US that led to the opening of one spot for Asian teams at the tournament. Fortunately, being the fifth-place finishers, India was lucky enough to bag their Olympic berth in 1980 with other teams backing out.

India, in the tournament, found themselves among other monumental teams — the Soviet Union, Yugoslavia, Italy, Poland, Australia, Spain, Brazil, Cuba, Czechoslovakia, Sweden, and Senegal. The Indian team led by captain Paramjit Singh embraced the opportunity with superlative enthusiasm. Paramjit led out the team with a roster, which included 6’5′ superstar Ajmer Singh, versatile forward Shyam Radhey, Amarnath Nagarajan, Baldev Singh, Hanuman Rathore, Diniar Parvez Irani, Tarlok Singh Sandhu, Paramdip Singh, Dilip Gurumurthy, Jorawar Singh, and Harbhajan Singh.

Group A: India, Soviet Union, Brazil, Czechoslovakia

The Indian team was placed in Group A, alongside the Soviet Union, Brazil and Czechoslovakia. Their maiden appearance was against the home team, which thumped a 121-65 win against India. The only positive outcome of that game was Ajmer Singh’s 22 point and five rebound effort.

The 1980 Moscow Olympics, till date remains to be one of the most controversial Olympics ever.

India faced Czechoslovakia in the second game who turned out to be tougher and more merciless than the host. The Czechoslovakians clinched an elaborate 133-65 win. The game featured a dramatic one-on-one shootout between Ajmer Singh and Czechoslovakia’s Kamil Brabenec.

In their third group stage match, India was again outclassed by Brazil. They ended their group stage matches succumbing a massive 137-64 defeat. The talking point of that match was, however, Shyam Radhey who secured 32 points.

After losing all the three matches in their group stage, the Indian team was not left with much options in their hands.

India tried to find a foot in the classification round games, where they couldn’t show much resilience. The Polish team, led by Mieczyslaw Mlinarski inflicted a 113-67 win over India. It was followed by a match against African champions Senegal, who beat India by 81-59. Sweden also defeated India 119-63.

After losing six consecutive matches, India faced Australia for the 11th or 12th place match. As a swansong, the Indian team displayed their grit in the first half of the match where they were leading 41-37. However, the Indian team couldn’t hold their resilience Australia frog-leaped with 36 points and 11 rebounds. The match ended in favour of the Aussies with a scoreline of 93-75. India finished their Olympic run at 12th place.

Though lacklustre performance marred the Olympics, it was still the only competitive high-point in Indian hoops. India’s performance further dipped in a chasm.


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