Monday, 11 August 2008

A Conspicuous Absence

Today saw the men's field hockey competition at the Beijing Olympics get underway, and there was a notable team missing from the competition schedule. As I had written on Friday, India was a powerhouse in the sport for many years. They won a number of Olympic gold medals and World Championships during their run of glory. However, India's last gold medal came in 1980 in Moscow, and they hadn't won a medal since. Now, it may be the case that the world simply had caught up to the Indian squad, but it appears that India's fall from grace is their own doing. How does a nation that considers field hockey to be a national sport fall so quickly on the international scene? What happened to the prestige and respect that India once commanded from its opponents?

For the first time ever, India's men's field hockey squad failed to qualify for the Olympic Games. This isn't some upstart country that captured the world's attention. No, this would be akin to the United States "Dream Team" basketball program failing to qualify for the Olympics, or the Canadian ice hockey team watching from home. A once-legendary program known for its dominance had been reduced to watching a sport they dominated for so many years from home on television. What caused this to happen?

The major sign that there were problems was scandal within the Indian Hockey Federation which oversees the sport within the country of India. A television station recorded the secretary of the Federation accepting a bribe to include a particular player on the team. Upon discovering this news, the International Hockey Federation (FIH) threatened to ban the Indian squad from competing at the 2010 Hockey World Cup.

In response to the pressure from the FIH, the Indian Olympic Association fired the president of the Indian Hockey Federation and moved to replace the Federation with a new governing body called Hockey India. The now-fired president, Kanwar Pal Singh Gill, has appealed this move, and will have his story heard in court on August 29.

The decline in the sport actually began approximately 15 years ago when Gill took over the Federation. There had been no grassroots efforts put in place to grow hockey amongst the young Indian athletes in an effort to attract new players. Instead, through efforts made by their sporting federations, both cricket and tennis have enjoyed growth in their sports while field hockey has fallen into a state of disarray.

Not only do they not have any up-and-coming stars, but the Indian Hockey Federation failed to follow the rest of the world in converting to artificial fields. Artificial fields, as stated on Friday, allow for quicker play and faster action, and the Indians are simply falling behind in a sport where they were the leaders for so long.

Of course, Mr. Gill blames the government for not helping the Indian Hockey Federation remain competitive. According to a Wall Street Journal article by Tariq Engineer, the cost of building artificial-turf stadiums was beyond the Indian Hockey Federation's capacity, and that the government should have stepped in and provided funds for the shortfall. For a government that already had some major shortfalls in their economy, this seems like a ridiculous cop-out by a tarnished individual.

However, the hits didn't stop there. On July 31, 2008, the Indian Olympic Association fired chief national selector Aslam Sher Khan after having awarded him the job three months earlier. Khan's firing came three weeks after Australian coach Ric Charlesworth quit his job as technical director of the team, stating that officials were never clear on the tasks he was responsible for performing. Former Indian captain Ajitpal Singh was appointed as his replacement in a unanimous decision at a meeting of the ruling five-member panel.

This is some of the most disappointing news regarding a once-proud country in terms of a program. Olympic funding in most developing countries is less than admirable, but to watch a nation crumble like this is devastating. Hopefully, Mr. Singh and his colleagues can restore the Indian field hockey squad to their former dominant status, but this will take a lot of hard work and patience. Only time will tell if India can rebound from the flames they currently find themselves in.

Completely Unrelated: This has nothing to do with hockey whatsoever, but I thought this might be the "Best Sports Moment" in the Olympics thus far. As you may have heard, Russia and Georgia are currently in a conflict that has claimed the lives of thousands of people from those two countries already. It's a difficult time for the 35 Georgian athletes who decided to attend the Olympic Games in the midst of this conflict, and even considered going back home and canceling their participation.

However, Russia and Georgia shared a podium this morning in the women's 10m air pistol competition, and the moment happened there. China's Guo Wenjun took gold, Russia's Natalia Paderina took silver, and Georgia's Nino Salukvadze won bronze. Paderina, on the left in this photo, embraced Salukvadze as the two posed for pictures. Paderina then gave Salukvadze a kiss on the cheek.

Again, that is the moment of the Olympic Games for me thus far. Congratulations to both women!

Until next time, keep your sticks on the ice... and field!

1 comment:

offensivhockey said...

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