With less than 10 days to go for the Tokyo Olympic Games, the Olympic fever has engulfed the entire sporting world. While the Indian athletes carry out their final preparations, it’s time for the hockey fans to relive the memories from the Olympic campaigns in the past through Hockey India’s Flashback Series.
In the eleventh article of Hockey India’s Flashback Series, hockey legend Dhanraj Pillay recalled interesting anecdotes from his first Olympic Games in 1992 and narrowly missing out on a Semi Final berth in the Sydney Olympics in 2000.
Having made his India debut in 1989, Dhanraj was picked in the 1992 Olympic squad Coached by Balkrishan Singh. “I was a junior in the team. Ajit Lakra and I were probably the youngest players in that squad for the 1992 Barcelona Olympics. It was always my dream to play at the Olympics. I really worked hard for that. From 1989 onwards, people had started recognizing me. In 89′ I played the Asia Cup in Delhi (where India won Silver) and after that we went to Holland where I really made a mark. I think we beat Pakistan 4-2; it was a good tournament for me and from there on I never looked back,” recalled the 52-year-old stalwart of his formative days in International hockey.
“I played right-out and centre forward. I looked up to Jude (Felix) a lot. He was a very stylish player, I used to watch his game before I came into the Indian team. Jude played for Southern Railways, and to be part of the Indian team consisting of such great players was a great experience. Pargat was a very strict Captain and always serious during practice. There were times when he would even scold us if we slacked,” added Pillay.
Though India had a dismal outing in Barcelona, finishing between 5-8 placing bracket, and in Atlanta Olympics too they had a forgettable tournament losing even their classification matches to South Korea (6-8 tiebreaker) and Great Britain (3-4), Dhanraj believes the closest they came to a Semi Final berth was at the Sydney Olympics in 2000. But a 1-1 draw against Poland in the league stage put an end to India’s hopes yet again. “The night before a match, I always had the habit of visualizing my game. How I would receive the ball from Baljit Singh Dhillon or Mukesh Kumar. I would visualize the ground and the players. If I can’t score, then how I can make a PC. Those days, even crosses used to be very important in the game,” Pillay stated.
Until the match against Poland, India had registered a 3-0 win against Argentina, 2-2 draw against Australia, 0-2 loss to Korea, and 3-2 win against Spain. “The team was doing well, and no one even dreamt that we would draw against Poland. Against Poland, we were confident of winning by three goals. There was slight rain that day during the match and I feel that hampered our plans too. Even a 2-2 draw would have put us in the Semis. But with 1.46 mins left, Poland scored an equalizer. We got two chances before the final whistle, but we couldn’t revert,” Pillay recalled of the agonizing loss.
The legendary striker’s fourth attempt at Olympic glory at the Athens Olympics in 2004 too ended in a disappointment with the team facing several hurdles in the lead-up as well as in the tournament where the team struggled with injuries. Three defeats in their opening four group matches effectively put India out of contention. Their only win was against South Africa and worse still was India’s loss against rivals Pakistan in the classification playoff before a 5-2 win against Korea to finish 7th.
“I think the mistake we did at every Olympic Games was that we went with the mind set of aiming for the Final instead of taking it match-by-match. Though we had the best teams each time, things did not materialize for us to finish on the podium,” Pillay stated.
India can break the jinx
Pillay is optimistic that the Manpreet Singh-led squad will be able to break the 41-year jinx at the Olympics. “I am very confident they will do it this time. They have been doing well in the last 5 years. Fitness is their biggest asset. In those days, we didn’t have the kind of support system they have now. This team has done wonders, won hearts of millions of fans with their recent performances particularly the Champions Trophy (in 2016 and 2018) and the World League Finals (2015 and 2017) results. I know they can do it this time,” he said.
On Monday, Pillay even sent a personalized letter to Skippers Manpreet Singh and Rani wishing both the teams good luck. “Since I am also in Bangalore, I would have loved to meet them in person but due to protocols, I did not. I sent them a letter wishing them the very best and I wanted to convey to them that they should be careful about their diet when they are in the Olympic village. I wanted to convey to them that they should enjoy the best part of their athletic life by being calm and relaxed.”
“To both Men and Women’s team, I want to say, don’t think about the podium finish. Go match-by-match and stick together as one unit right until the last day, the last match of the tournament,” he signed off.