Indian women’s hockey was always considered hopeless, and hardly got the support it needed to prosper. That is history now. For a team that was denied permission to even play the Olympic qualifiers in the past, booking a Rio Olympics berth is path breaking.
Despite being in the government-sponsored preparatory camp for eight months, the Indian women were denied permission to play the Auckland Olympic qualifiers in 1991. This was because an expert committee, midway through the camp, gave them no chance. Ironically, two women were at the helm then – Mamata Banerjee was the sports minister while Neena Ranjan was secretary, sports.
Eight years later, Sita Gussain’s team was just two minutes away from the Sydney Olympics when it led Korea 2-1 at the Asia Cup final in Delhi. The reigning Asiad gold medallists equalised in the dying seconds and went on to win the tie-break, leaving India heartbroken. Two months later, the same team finished at the bottom of the Olympic qualifier as half a dozen seniors boycotted it due to a dispute with the coach.
Even winning the Asia Cup, four years later, did not get them the elusive Olympic berth. Now the event has been made biannual and considered only a qualifier to the Olympic qualifiers. The Asia Cup allotted to India was to be held in December 2003, but was postponed at the last minute to early next year to accommodate the Afro-Asian Games. The Indian women won both the events, but the points they got for the Asia Cup crown did not count towards FIH rankings when teams were announced for the Olympic qualifier. Since December was the cut-off, six of the 10 teams qualified easily for the 2004 Athens Olympics while India were left ruing their fate.
At the Kazan Olympic qualifiers in 2008, the women had a chance to go one up against the men, who hardly a month ago had failed at the Chile qualifier. But they fared worse, losing to Netherlands Antilles. Even the kit gifted by the ‘Chak de India’ crew did not work.
When Delhi played host, India’s job was to overcome the only challenger in South Africa, to whom they had never lost in a decade. But they failed, plagued by an alleged sexual harassment case, resulting in frequent change of coaches and losing of focus.
Indian women missing the Olympics for so long speaks poorly of us, especially when India were projected as gold medallists at Moscow, where women’s hockey was introduced at the insistence of India.
“Your prime minister (Indira Gandhi) phoned our president and insisted on women hockey’s at Moscow. He agreed without hesitation,” said Sergey Chenchenkov, president of the Russian Hockey Federation, told this writer in an interview at Kazan.
Had only the Rupa Saini-led India fared better than finishing fourth in a field of six, there would have been a different story to tell. This also proves another point. Being in the Olympics alone cannot trigger off revival; in fact it may prove counter-productive. There is more pressure now on our girls to deliver at Rio and build on the gains.
The writer is a hockey historian and runs the website stick2hockey.com