Last week, before leaving for London, I laid my hands on an Olympic gold medal.
No kidding. It was the real thing, not a replica found in Chor Bazar, weighing approximately 250 grams, with the gold content at about six grams as ordained. It looked resplendent, unsullied by the ravages of time.
Dubious as my privilege was of holding the medal, I nonetheless felt a tingle in my spine. Imagine the feelings of a sportsperson who has actually won one!
I won’t dare to describe those, but I’ll let MM Somaya, former hockey captain, proud owner of this gold medal in Moscow, 1980, try. “This represents the greatest moment of my life,” he said. Thirty-two years afterwards, words still fail Somaya.
In a country that suffers from a perennial drought of sporting achievement, it might interest readers to know that Mumbai boasts three Olympic gold medallists. All three played hockey, the first one when India was at its zenith in the sport, the other two during the last gasp before the fadeout.
Leo Pinto, a goalkeeper who memorably removed his pads and scored a goal in the final of the London Olympics in 1948, was the first. He was then associated for decades with Tata Sports, but is alas no longer with us, having passed way in August 2010.
The other two are Somaya’s teammate, the dazzling striker Merwyn Fernandes, a boy from Ambernath who now lives in Vakola and works as a purser with Air India, and Manepandey Somaya, who grew up in Byculla, went to school in Mazagaon, studied at St Xaveir’s College and is a general manager at Bharat Petroleum.
Somaya lives in the Sportsfield apartment building on Worli Seaface with his wife Shammi, who works for Vijaya Bank in the Cuffe Parade branch. The gold medal, a memento of infinite value to him and Indian sport, made a rare public appearance when I cajoled him for a darshan when we met last week.
I don’t remember seeing the medal when I met him shortly after he had returned from the Moscow Olympics. He was barely 20, I hardly 25, and both of us a little dumbstruck by the occasion.
He was my first big sports interview. I went to see him in his flat in Spence Lane off Byculla, where he lived with his parents and brother. He hesitated to talk about his achievement and I was perhaps just overawed to ask to see the medal.
As it emerged, his brother had been my classmate in my first year at
St Xavier’s. In those days, I was still unaware about the conventions of south Indian naming. How was one to know that Somaya could be Cariappa’s brother!
I prodded Somaya to reminisce about the 1980 Olympics. “It was the first time I was travelling overseas,” he recalled. “I had played for college and Bombay for two seasons before I was picked for Moscow because coach Balkishan Singh wanted to build a team for the future.’’
Was he overawed by the occasion? “You bet,” replied Somaya. “I was actually a fringe player, but my form in practice was good so Balkishan put me in the playing eleven and I held my place till the final.’’
In that heart-stopping game, India prevailed narrowly over Spain 4-3. The Moscow Olympics were boycotted by the Western Bloc because of the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan, which meant that Australia, West Germany, the Netherlands and Pakistan — all strong hockey-playing countries — were missing.
But Somaya contests that this cannot undermine India’s victory. “We beat the Soviet Union in the semi-final and Spain in the final, both strong teams,” he says. “We must also remember that this was the first time we were playing on astro-turf.”
India did not have a single astro-turf then; now it has 32. That, of course, has not prevented our slump from winning gold in 1980 to barely qualifying for the 2012 London Games.
“The game’s changed and coaching methods have evolved,” said Somaya. “I don’t think it’s a question of talent. We have that. I think we were a step behind consistently where training drills and skill innovations are concerned.’’
Did he have any hope for India at London? “The important thing is that we are in contention,” he said. “Just being there can arouse such passion that athletes can raise their game against all odds.”
A medal for India, leave aside gold, is a far-fetched prospect, according to experts. But this is the Olympics, as Somaya says, so who knows?
Go India, go!
When he is not following sport, Ayaz Memon writes about the city and its different worlds