The onset of every Olympics gives rise to bittersweet feelings among India's vast numbers of field hockey fans, with their pride in past gold medal performances accompanied by introspection about what has gone wrong since.
The impressive record of winning eight gold medals - six in
succession starting from 1928 at Amsterdam - still makes hockey the most productive sport for India in the Olympics.
India has won 11 hockey medals in all, two more than the number won by India in all other sports combined. Indeed, India has won only one non-hockey gold in its history: Abhinav Bindra's gold in rifle shooting at Beijing four years ago.
But the country's last hockey gold came at the boycott-marred Moscow Olympics in 1980, when the likes of Australia, Pakistan and the Netherlands were absent. That was an aberration that could not disguise the relative decline in Indian hockey since the introduction of artificial turf in the 1970s.
India has failed to win another medal since, with power and stamina becoming more important than the artistic stick-work that had been effective on natural grass.
So, when India arrives at the blue and pink turf of London after having missed the Beijing Games, the Bharat Chetri-led team will carry more hope than expectation.
They will also carry responsibility, knowing how important the Olympic showing is to the overall health of the sport.
"They are very important because (field) hockey in India is judged by performance at the Olympics," former India captain Viren Resquinha told The Associated Press. "A good performance will not only give a major boost to the game but get millions to play the game."
Noted hockey analyst K Arumugam, who has written 14 books on the game, agreed.
"Indian hockey survives because it has done so well in past Olympics," Arumugam told The Associated Press. "Producing good results in the Olympics are important because of the glory they bring to the country."
Armugum though does not see India making it to the semifinals.
"It will be a good performance if they finish in the top six. To make the semifinals, you have to be among the top two in your group, which will be a gigantic task considering the other teams in our group: the Netherlands, Germany, South Korea, New Zealand and Belgium," Arumugam said.
"Others in our group have settled teams and coaching staff but we've just got a coach (Australian Michael Nobbs) one year ago, so that makes things a little difficult as well," he added.
Resquinha, who was a key member of the team that played at the Athens Olympics in 2004, is cautious about predicting a good performance but does feel India can prosper if they play a tight game.
"There are never any easy groups in the Olympics. I feel the defense and short-corners will be the key. We've to create more short-corners to give our two world-class drag-flickers - Sandeep Singh and VR Raghunath - a chance to score. If the forwards also play well, they can create chances of scoring more field goals as well."
Former India captain Dhanraj Pillay feels it will be very important to start well in the tournament.
"I've taken part in four Olympics and we invariably lost the opening game," Pillay said at a function in Mumbai last week. "It's crucial for the Indian team to win the first game (against the Netherlands on July 30) if they have to do well and hope to make the semifinals."
India, which made it to the Olympics by winning a qualifying tournament in New Delhi beating France 8-1 in the final, is on a tour of Europe where it is playing games against France, Spain and South Africa.
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