Hockey at #Tokyo2020 - The Start of Something Beautiful?

Imagine being a kid right now

Just the other day, a friend asked me, as we were sipping some gin & tonic, if I would rather be 13 or 30. My answer was emphatic. Childhood is great -- your life is simple, your mind is easily blown, and you are the designated receiver of treats in the house. But I prefer adulthood, with its independence and free will, and a choice to live and design my life the way I want. There are more variables now, sure, but the pros outweigh the cons.

If I miss one thing about childhood, it is the quick awe and wonder at new discoveries. I can order a Toblerone bar within five taps of my thumb, but I don’t pick up a weird-looking pebble from the street and wonder if Delhi too had a Jurassic Park. 

It was a silly, precious feeling. You watched Independence Day and Top Gun -- and Swat Katz, for the absolute legends reading this -- and wanted to become a pilot. My walls and almirah doors were peppered with Tendulkar and Lara posters. Pete Sampras’ one-handed backhand prompted me to think about my life after my seventh consecutive Wimbledon title.

As I watched the men and women’s teams write new chapters into the history of Indian Hockey, I wondered what it must be like for 13-year-olds watching along. Were they moving closer to the edge of their chairs with every penalty corner Sreejesh and Savita saved? Did they jump and squeal when Gurjit Kaur scored? Was the price of a new hockey stick discussed at dinner?

I write this the morning after the Belgian men’s team humbled the Indians 5-2 in the semis. As the match went into the fourth quarter, Belgium found a new gear, a well of energy and quality, that proved too much for our boys. The women play their semi-final against Argentina tonight. As optimistic as we all are at this point, there is a fair chance of India returning from Tokyo without a Hockey medal. 

But these champions have already won a more significant battle.

Hockey is one of the many sports in India that advertisers and mainstream media deem unworthy of special attention. We read about World Cups and Champions Trophies through bulletin news apps and Twitter. Reports from unglamorous tournaments are minimised and relegated to the bowels of a newspaper.

Our two national teams have forced people to look. Sjoerd Marijne, the women’s team coach and latest Twitter sensation, was promoted to the men’s team and demoted -- demoted -- back to the women’s after the men finished fourth at the 2018 Commonwealth Games. Vandana Kataria, whose hat-trick against South Africa got India the quarter-final spot, lost her father three months back.

The men’s team, who have to wear a jersey loaded with heritage but lacking in comfort every time they take the field, will be playing a bronze medal match tomorrow. Unlike what the shock and awe at their performances might suggest, they are a decent team on the circuit. Always have been. The generation of Jugraj, Gagan Ajit, and Dhanraj made for a solid team too. That they fell short of the podium is as much a consequence of a fragile ecosystem as it is of technical inferiority. 

An Olympic medal might just shake us into finally acknowledging this goldmine. Hockey has richer popularity in India than we otherwise notice, but it will now attract serious eyeballs, even if for a fleeting phase. So far, calling Vidya Malvade -- the ex-India goalkeeper from that tournament called Chak De -- on news channels is the best we have achieved. But we will do better. Advertisers have to piggyback on the hottest trend in town. Grants and awards will be announced, maybe a flash new sponsorship deal too. 

India’s out-of-nowhere World Cup victory in 1983 changed cricket forever and brought serious money into the sport. The very next World Cup was sponsored by Reliance and brought to the sub-continent. Hockey can use some of that sunlight.

But most importantly, these two teams would have egged many 13-year-olds into astroturfed dreams. There is no better gift for a kid than an entire bus of real-life heroes to look up to. Next time they walk into a sports shop, they might ask for the cool-looking pad that goalkeepers wear. Or even a helmet.

The medals will eventually rust and fade; their time will come to leave the field; but it is a rarer achievement to become the shoulders on which a generation of giants can stand. What greater legacy can you wish to leave?

If India lands an Olympic medal at Los Angeles or Brisbane, the first weekend of August 2021 would have been the turning point.