Indian hockey's glorious past meets ambitious present

NEW DELHI Mon Jun 25, 2012 12:07pm IST

1 of 2. India's Bharat celebrates with his teammate Sardar Singh (L) after scoring a goal against Malaysia during their hockey group match at the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi October 5, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Adnan Abidi

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NEW DELHI (Reuters) - When 76-year-old Gurbux Singh opened the small, black case with trembling fingers and gently fished out the gold medal he won almost half a century ago, India hockey captain Bharat Chetri and his London-bound team mates could not take their eyes off him.

In all probability, this was the nearest they will ever get to an Olympic gold.

Dangling right before those 16 pair of eyes at a Delhi hotel on Sunday was not just a round piece of yellow metal but a symbol of what India, once a hockey super power, has been chasing over the last three exasperating decades.

"It's made mainly of silver and coated with gold, but an Olympic gold medal is not about how much it's worth. It's about sentiment," Singh told Reuters as he displayed the medal later.

"We were requested to bring our Olympic gold medals to show the boys and motivate them - and they looked motivated," he said, closing the case and putting it safely back into his jacket pocket.

Hockey India (HI) could not have come up with a better way to motivate the 16-member Indian men's team leaving for London than bringing them together with 30-odd former Olympians who were part of the country's golden hockey era.

India won the first of six successive Olympic gold medals in 1928 and added another in 1964. Their last came in 1980, by which time Indian hockey was on the decline.

Their freefall from the summit of hockey reached its nadir in 2008 when India, considered hockey's spiritual home, failed to qualify for the Beijing Olympics.

But India will be back at the Games in London, and hockey greats, many now forgotten in a cricket-obsessed country, defied old age to turn up at the send-off ceremony to inspire Chetri and his team mates.

'THOSE WERE THE DAYS'

Hardayal Singh, who won gold in 1956, needs a walking stick for every step and had to be helped on stage. A sheepish HI secretary Narinder Batra confessed they did not really know how old he was as the federation did not have his date of birth in their records.

A.S. Bakshi, Singh's 87-year-old team mate from the Melbourne squad, found the plaque he was presented with too heavy and dropped it. The same hands that wielded a hockey stick and joystick, he later became a commercial pilot, are now unable to bear the weight of a memento.

Jaswant Singh Rajput dropped his memento too, prompting sports minister Ajay Maken to come down from the stage and hand over the plaques while the ageing greats sat in comfort.

The biggest cheer was reserved for Leslie Claudius, whose three gold medals and a silver from four Olympic appearances between 1948 and 1956 placed him in a league of his own.

"Those were the days. On grass, you could slip the stick under the ball which helped our dribbling style. Astroturf has killed that," he lamented.

At 85, Claudius has hearing problems and repeats the question to make sure he heard it right.

"India's chance in London? Honestly I have not seen much of these boys but winning a medal looks difficult. Difficult though not impossible."

Chetri said he and his team mates would do whatever it takes to make that possible.

"I placed one of the gold medals on my palm just to get the feeling. It's indescribable," the goalkeeper said.

"These are the legends we grew up reading about. Meeting them like this is very, very special. It's one of the most memorable days of my life and I promise we won't let them down."

(Editing by Peter Rutherford)

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