Ajitpal Singh and Dhanraj Pillay, captains of 1975 World Cup and 1998 Asian Games champion men’s hockey squads, watched with interest the reception for hockey Olympians from Tokyo and felicitations on arrival. The men returned with a bronze medal, the women fought all the way to finish fourth. State governments invited the teams over to Bhubaneshwar, Lucknow, and honoured the internationals. Organisations where players work announced incentives.
Hockey mood is happy heading towards the National Sports Day 2021 on August 29.
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This is an effort to find out from two legends who returned with the gold medal, nothing less, whether the celebratory mood across the nation can translate into increased following for the sport and also what next after Tokyo 2020. Ajitpal was the midfield general when India’s first ever World Cup title was clinched at Kuala Lumpur. He and teammates landed in New Delhi to a rapturous public reception.
The 1975 World Cupper (he played in 1971 and 1973 editions also)
recalled: “We travelled all over India for functions, played exhibition matches in Bangalore, Madras, Raipur, Bhopal and Bombay. The Rest of India team faced us in some places, the local players were our opponents elsewhere. In Mumbai, we played against the film stars.”
“I am sure these boys going for felicitations are not playing. The only difference (between 1975 and 2021) is that we came back with a World Cup gold, they won an Olympics bronze. My suggestion to them would be to bring India a gold medal, get bigger receptions, better incentives and more respect.”
Referring to Dhyanchand birthday celebrations, he observed: “The National Sports Day (NSD) is for all sports, I don’t think celebrations will be limited to only hockey.”
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Asked about the states honouring the Tokyo Olympians, Ajitpal looked at the wider picture: “The players were invited by Odisha, Uttar Pradesh. They are going not only to attend functions, but also promote hockey, as representatives of their sport. People at the ground level can get inspired watching them.”
The double Olympic medallist (1968 Mexico City and 1972 Munich)
added: “I started the game this way in Jalandhar. We have about 12 hockey Olympians in my small village of Sansarpur, so I picked up the hockey stick as a school-going child. Watching them, we children realised that they play the game so well, looked well-groomed, physically very fit and muscular, had good jobs also and got respect. I am sure it applies today as well and in the future. Kids follow a sport where the national team is successful, any country and any sport.”
Quizzed about what he wishes should happen post-Tokyo, he said the target for India players should be to aim higher than a bronze, go for gold. He was of the view that Hockey India is best placed to decide how to ride on the increase in public interest.
Dhanraj Pillay has a different take on how sports, including hockey, can capitalise on the Tokyo 2020 booster dose. “India needs infrastructure in smaller cities, if we are to take advantage of this mood among the people. States like Haryana or cities like Hyderabad have the facilities, encourage sportspersons. Smaller cities need them, not only in hockey but even in sports like fencing. If SAI and the Sports Ministry now look at 2024 or 2028, we can make a difference.”
The Bangkok Asian Games champion team captain suggested: “Private people should also be welcomed into sports promotion, infrastructure creation. Reviving the Hockey India League will be useful to continue the momentum, this is my request to Hockey India. Even if sponsors or franchises are not available, a league on a smaller scale with Indian players only for now can help.”
Asked about the effect of felicitations by government, states and by offices employing the Tokyo Olympians, he felt parents will be inclined to look at sports as a career. “When parents see a 23-year-old (javelin champion Neeraj
Chopra) getting crores in cash incentives, they know his future is made and family is secure.”
When asked if the news coverage of felicitations will make kids turn to hockey. “I can’t say to what extent children will get inspired to try hockey, but the Prime Minister of India talking is sure to get parents interested. When the Olympic Games were on, he was communicating with all the players. The PM has many followers and social media’s reach and impact was visible. Parents may look at sports in a different way. Hearing him greet the men’s team for winning a bronze, and console the women after the semi-final loss made me feel good, as a sportsperson.”
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He added: “When the Olympians returned to India, I saw footage and images of the PM standing at a round table with internationals from hockey and other sports, among whom were weightlifter Mirabai (Chanu), boxer Lovlina (Borgohain), shuttler PV Sindhu, wrestler Bajrang Punia to name a few. When parents of sports-minded kids see or read about the PM personally interacting with Olympians, they may show more interest in sport than before.”
Ahead of the NSD, the hockey Olympians from Tokyo 2020 batch, men and women, were honoured by the state governments of Odisha and Uttar Pradesh.
Odisha also announced the extension of hockey sponsorship for the next
10 years. “I thank the state governments for the amazing support to hockey,” said Dhanraj, a four-time Olympian (1992 Barcelona to 2004 Athens), asserting that encouragement given by sponsors and corporates in the past need to be understood, with respect to players’ monetary welfare.
“From 2003 to 2018, Sahara India Pariwar was the sponsor. In 2004, they gave a salary of Rs 25,000 per month to 35 India players. This can be revived, for the benefit of more players,” said Dhanraj.
He pointed out that the bronze won by the Tokyo 2020 men was the result of constant support from past sponsors, from persistent efforts of past players. “No doubt the boys worked hard along with the coaches to stand on the podium. They deserve applause and awards. The great Dhyanchand’s birthday, celebrated as National Sports Day amidst the Olympic Games success, can also be an occasion to look at past decisions in the present context. I recall a commitment in writing by the Sahara Pariwar, guaranteeing Rs 25,000 monthly for one year into the players bank account, to all those going for the Athens Olympics.“
Dhanraj revealed that a slab-wise system was considered, based on the number of India appearances, but could not be implemented due to opposition from the national coaches. “The attempt was to work towards a graded system, like it happens in cricket between BCCI and cricketers. The coaches did not want different payments for different players. The performance by the national team is relevant to make any incentives system work. Next year is the Asian Games, Commonwealth Games for us. One way towards consistency in performances is to increase competition in the squad. My request is to increase senior camp probables, from 33 now to about 45. I am hopeful of consistency, competition for each place is a time-tested way to keep players on their toes,” he said.
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