Olympians relive the
peaks and the troughs
THE erudite hockey Olympian, Rupa Saini belongs to a Faridkot-based family which has a rich tradition in sports, particularly in Indian hockey. At one time, the Saini sisters dominated women's hockey in India and this can be gauged from the fact that three of them— Rupa, Krishna and Prema- turned out for the country in a Test series against Japan in 1970. Rupa, at that time, was a 15-year- old pony tailed girl bristling with youthful exuberance. And it was this young and talented girl who went on to captain the Indian team in the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
The list of Rupa Saini's achievement is long and impressive. She has donned the Indian colours in the 1974 France and 1978 Madrid World Cups, apart from earning nearly 200 Test caps both in India and abroad.She also played in the 1979 world championships held in Vancouver.
Taking a drive down
the corridors of memory lane, Rupa reveals the crests and troughs she
had to undergo in her illustrious career. She opined that one of the
most happiest moments of her 19-year-long, effervescent career was
when she got a chance to play alongside her two sisters -Krishna and
Prema- in a five Test match series against Japan in 1970. Playing as a
right in, she didn't score many goals but learned a lot.
There is always a flip side to a coin. If there are crests in a sportsman's life, there have to be troughs too. In a voice heavy with emotion, Rupa recounts each and every moment of 1978 Madrid World Cup match against Japan. The Indians were playing on the astro-turf for the first time ever since it was introduced in world hockey. In a league match against the tough Japanese, Rupa playing as a centre half, got her foot stuck and with the rival custodian lying spreadeagled, she flunked her shot. She managed to get up and with the goaltender still out of place, she unleashed a powerful carpet drive only to see it hit the left post and ricochet out of play. The Indians lost the match and with it a place in the last four.
These days Rupa, having earned a
doctorate degree, is employed as a senior lecturer with the Government
College of Physical Education in Patiala. She has also been appointed as
a manager of the senior Indian team by the Indian Women Hockey
"MY most disappointing or agonising moment was the 1972 Olympic Games. Just a few days before my actual competition, I pulled a muscle and had to cry out of the event. That year I had prepared myself very well after tough training schedules and was all set for a medal. But it was not to be," recalls Mohinder Gill, one of the best triple jumpers the country has produced. An Asian Games gold medalist and a Commonwealth Games medalist, the US-based Mohinder Gill, is a legend in track and field.
With a hop, step and jump of 16.10 metres, he won the gold at the Bangkok Asian Games. Looking back, he says, it was "immaturity" and "over enthusiasm for training hard" which were responsible for many turbulences in his sporting career spanning almost two decades.
"At one stage I was so disgusted with my mediocre performance that I was contemplating to quit. At that time, I used to clear about 45'. After staying away from the track for a couple of weeks, just walked into the Chandigarh's Sector 7 Athletic Stadium where the State Championship was in progress. I was persuaded to participate. And I did to a pleasant surprise that I gave my best by clearing 49'10".
"Equally satisfying day was an event in 1971 when while training hard very had, I could just clear 51' at my University athletic meet in the USA. In the afternoon was an international competition. I went home and slept. Because of my poor performance in the morning, I did not expect any place in the international competition. To my great surprise, cleared 55' 1.5", my best. Though my last jump was 56'5", they debated whether it was a foul or a correct jump. Ultimately, they never recognised my last jump but still 55'1.5" was satisfying for me against what I did in the morning.
"On the other hand, another disappointing day for me was when the organisers of the National Athletic Meet in New Delhi (1967) decided to cancel the triple jump event as the then national champion, Labh Singh, was not well. I was relaxed and beaming with confidence. But after cancellation of the event I was so disappointed that I decided to leave India and go to the USA.
" And in 1974 when Ireached
Christchurch for the Commonwealth Games, thanks to Mrs Indira Gandhi,
whom I called and told her about my achievements on the phone to get my
air ticket and entry to the Games, I had little time to relax because of
a long travel plan.Till the last jump I was leading the field. While our
event was in progress, an old Games record was broken because of which
attention of all conduct officials was diverted. It was during this
moment that my rival, a Ghanian, made a foul jump, which was cleared.
Though everyone, including TV held that it was a foul jump, but noting
could be done a no official was accompanying me and no formal protest
could be lodged. So I was denied a gold and ended with a silver,'"
adds Mohinder Gill.
Balkishen Singh is among those players who have a unique place in the annals of Indian hockey for he and his father, Brig Dalip Singh are one of the three father-son duos who have turned for the country in the olympic arena. The other two are the legendary Dhyan Chand and Ashok Kumar with the Ajit Singh- Gagan Ajit Singh duo being the latest addition to the list.
Balkishen Singh donned India colours in the 1956 Melbourne and the1960 Rome olympics. However, his list of achievements as a coach makes for interesting reading. He coached the men's squad in the 1968 Mexico, 1980 Moscow, 1984 Los Angeles olympiads. He was coach of the women's squad for the 1981 Osaka Asian cup and 1982 New Delhi Asian games.
Balkishen, the soft and affable person that he is, recalls ones of the worst moments of his career as a coach, a moment he would best like to forget in a hurry and a moment, as he himself admits, haunts him in his dreams even 15 years after it all happened. At the Los Angeles olympics, India were in a must win situation in their match against the powerful Germans. A win here would have taken the Moscow gold medalists to the semi-final stage. The Indians were trailing by a goal and towards the fag end of the intense encounter, left out and skipper Zafar Iqbal drove a rasping carpet shot straight into the custodians pads, who lost balance. Even as the custodian was trying to regain control of himself, the ball again reached Zafar, who to the utter dismay of all present, flunked an easy chance to score with the goaltender still miles out his place.
Suddenly, Balkishen recalls, some sort of an invisible darkness enveloped him. He said " Even after the Olympics were over and we came home, I could not recover from the trauma of losing that match. The sight of Zafar Iqbal driving the ball wide off the mark still haunts him in my moments of isolation."
The other moment he would like to forget in a jiffy was when the Indian team lost ace penalty corner expert Jagdev Singh in the 1992 Barcelona olympics -where the concept of `Total Hockey' was first put into use. Balkishen recalls that the India's were on the verge of making it to the last four grade when Jagdev injured his knee." A crucial match remained and as ill luck would have it, with Jagdev sitting on the bench, the maximum number of penalty corners in the olympics, to be precise- 12 ,were awarded in that match which would have made us qualify for the semi-final stage. However, we failed to convert even one of these" recalled a pensive Balkishen.
Among his most memorable moments were when he coached the women's hockey team to the 1982 Asian games gold medal.Said Balkishen " That squad, under the captainship of Elisa Nelson, was one of the best ever women hockey team that I have seen till yet. Prior to the games, India's position in sub-continental hockey was wavering somewhere between 5th and 7th. We had a job at hand and each and every girl proved equal to the task."
He also remembered how he made certain players change their positions and who later on went to make a name for themselves on the world stage. Prominent among those who Balkishen names is V.Bhaskaran who used to play in the centre-half position. Recalls a proud and beaming Balkishen "I saw Bhaskaran playing as a centre half in the All India Universities (AIU) team in 1971. However, keeping in mind his potential, I persuaded him to change to the left half position. And this proved to be a successful move as it was none other than Bhaskaran who successfully led India to a gold medal in the 1980 Moscow Olympics.
About the `Total Hockey' concept he so
passionately introduced but for some reasons, proved to be a flop,
Balkishen said "Total hockey needs strength in the legs and arms.
Our players were used to playing on grass and and most of them failed to
take out that that `stick symphony of grassfield hockey' syndrome from
their psychological systems. The advent of astro turf mean we had little
option except to stick to the `Total Hockey' concept. However, I felt
sad when our players failed to latch on the concept. `Total Hockey' is
played like basketball. Attack in waves and defend in waves. But that
was not to be and slowly things drifted back to the conventional 5-3-2-1
format." — RD