It was four years ago that the Indian government declared August 29 as the national sports day, commemorating the birth anniversary of hockey wizard, Dhyan Chand.
That decision led to widespread celebrations all around the country, but it only gave an official stamp to what generations of Indians had already acknowledged --- Dhyan Chand as the guardian angel of the country’s sports.
India’s medals from the Olympics are so few we even hail athletes who come closest after great effort, and finish fourth. Here, the nation and administrators have rightly learnt to put that endeavor in perspective.
That was not the case with Dhyan Chand. He spearheaded the Indian hockey team to three Olympic gold medals in a row. Not that those who were lucky to watch him play required the podium statistic to gush about his breathtaking stickwork on uneven grass patches.
Dhyan Chand’s accomplishment is also what helped hockey gain the status as the national sport. And great players who came after him have in one voice acknowledged whose perfection they chased in their careers.
The highlight of the national sports day celebrations will be the country’s top sports prizes being awarded by the president at the Rashtrapathi Bhawan.
India is far from acquiring a sports culture that would enable its athletes to find a higher standard in competition and aim for more success at Olympics and other world-class sports events.
While the government has honoured even athletes with lesser achievements annually, its refusal to honour Dhyan Chand with the Bharat Ratna, India’s highest civilian award, suggests the nation does not cherish its symbols.
And an agitation in the Capital every year by former hockey players seeking Bharat Ratna for the late hockey wizard does not convey the right message to children hoping to emulate their sports heroes.
Regarded as the finest player, and architect of the game in the pre-Independence era, he helped India win three Olympic gold between 1928 and 1936, playing a big role in instilling pride through sports in a nation that was pushing for independence.
Stories about Dhyan Chand, both on and off the pitch, are plenty and he remained the ultimate player on grass until the big switch in the 1970s to the artificial surface.
Indian players, weaned on deft touch than power, have slid dramatically over the last three decades and have not come anywhere near regaining the old stature.
Awarding the Bharat Ratna could inspire a nation that is furiously debating, post the Rio Olympics debacle, about ways to climb up the medals chart and rub shoulders with the best in the business, in Tokyo 2020 and beyond.
While Sachin Tendulkar, the most influential figure in cricket’s surge past every sport in India, was awarded the Bharat Ratna, that honour for the leading light in Indian sport before him is yet to be conferred.
It is important for the younger generations to be taught about the nation’s symbols of pride, especially in sports where role models are vital.
The Indian Olympic Association, for instance, has still not opened a museum to highlight the achievements, and triumph over adversity, of the nation’s Olympic athletes.
For instance, such an institution would help better explain the feat of Milkha Singh, what he achieved rather than missed while narrowly missing bronze in the 400m final at the Rome Olympics.
That he remains the only Indian track and field athlete to break an existing Games record in the final.