India's One Big Shot at Olympic Glory

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The field hockey team holds the country's greatest hope for a medal at this year's games—but its heyday may be too far in the past.

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In India, cricket is the national obsession, but it is actually field hockey that is its official game, with a more deeply embedded history within this patchwork of nations. Field hockey is the country's most decorated international sport, and the men's national team is the most accomplished in the Olympic event's history—winners of 11 medals, including eight gold, dating back to 1928.

As the world's second-fastest growing economy strives for more influence among the most powerful nations on earth, many of India's 1.2 billion citizens view field hockey as the country's best shot at making a statement on sport's largest international stage—given that cricket is not an Olympic sport. Indian field hockey has fallen off in recent years though because of a lack of success, with the national team hitting rock bottom in 2008 when it failed to qualify for the Olympics for the first time ever. Hockey's "Black Day," as it is known, was a near-lethal blow to a sport that has been in freefall since India won its last Olympic medal, a gold, in 1980. Support for hockey has waned ever since.

But buried deep within many Indians is a hope that hockey glory will return. That longing was mirrored in Chak de! India, an award-winning 2007 film starring Bollywood's top star, Shah Rukh Khan. It chronicled the rise of the women's national hockey team. Today, there is even talk that Khan, whose image graces billboards and auto-rickshaw rearview mirrors nationwide, will play Indian hockey legend Dhyan Chand—the Pelé of hockey—in another upcoming film.

"I think there is always a potential for hockey," said Arjun Halappa, a former captain of the national team, as well as one of the country's top players the last decade. "Everyone might say hockey is gone, but still if you look into India, emotion is always there for hockey. After cricket, you can draw a crowd only with hockey."

A RIGHT TURN and a drive down a back road from the congestion and chaos of the main drag takes visitors to the Sports Authority of India complex at the center of the southern city Bangalore. The sprawling campus is a lush and peaceful village protected from the usual accompaniments of a large Indian city—street noise, discarded food containers littering the ground, and people, everywhere. Its distance from the hustle and bustle allows it to stay free of all the clutter and dust. It is an oasis in the desert.

It's still above 80 degrees as this late-March evening nears 6 p.m. and water is sprayed onto the Astroturf, a practice that helps slow the pace of the playing surface. The players have just finished warming up on the nearby track and are sipping cups of hot tea. The smell of burning leaves and garbage lingers in the air.

National team coach Michael Nobbs, a tall, portly Australian brought on to reestablish the team on the international scene, drops the ball on one end of the pitch. Bursts of Indian blue from players' jerseys, with highlights of orange and white, surge through the waning day's light. Soggy footsteps are everywhere. A brood of brown-feathered kites, long-winged birds of prey, circles high overhead.

At the other end of the turf, the short corner experts—a distinct position comparable to soccer's star penalty kickers—are working on their first session of swings during this training camp. The band of three practices the drag-flick, essentially a 75 mph wrist shot about 15 yards from the goal. Among the trio is Sandeep Singh, the biggest name in Indian hockey right now. The 26-year-old Sikh from the northern state of Haryana has suddenly become the face of the sport after an impressive showing at the victorious Olympic qualifier held in Delhi in late-February.

Sandeep, a former captain of the national team and a winner of the 2010 Arjuna Award, the nation's top sports honor, is the David Beckham of Indian hockey. He is a talented specialist, but his defense and value outside of this knack for set pieces has in the past been called into question. After a stunning performance to help push India over the top and back into the Olympics, which included 16 goals on penalties in six matches, he is riding a sudden wave of celebrity, endorsements and bonus money as the sport moves toward professionalization.

He has a long neck and at 6'1" is taller than most Indians. His legs sprawl out as he sits on a metal bench chatting after practice. As is customary among Sikhs, he dons a turban—his a white wrap around his head and a coil of covered hair at its front--to go with his youthful face and well-kept beard. The Olympic rings permanently inscribed on his right arm signify him as only one of two members on the current squad to have played in the Games before, in 2004.

"In the past, we were just playing for our self-respect and country respect," said Sandeep. "We [were] just playing for our country, plus we want to wear Tiranga, the three colors of the flag. Now in hockey, money is coming and sponsors are coming, so now is good. But before, no sponsor, no money. We [were] just playing for our country, not for money, not for nothing."

While tradition dictates that nearly all of the national team players are given well-paid, mostly symbolic government jobs—Sandeep is a deputy superintendent of police in his home state; others are provided positions with the military or in the public sector—players have begun trying to cash in more aggressively. Sandeep and another Indian thought of as one of the best in the world, Sardara Singh—the two are unrelated, Singh is the Smith of India—have already signed deals with companies such as Reebok, Mountain Dew, and the Jaypee Group, a large Indian engineering conglomerate. Sahara, a corporate financial firm that also invests heavily in cricket, along with telecommunications giant Aircel, have stepped up as primary sponsors of the team. The national and state-level governments also frequently shower players with monetary rewards for successful tournaments.

"Everybody wants money," said Sandeep. "If we have good money in hockey, no problem. We have small money, but everybody wants money. That's why there are problems."

Indeed, for those players either not on the national team or not featured as stars, the money does not come quite as easily as it does for Sandeep and Sardara. On top of that, though the enthusiasm for hockey has been reignited, a now-typical Indian conflict—old world tradition versus potential new world success—threatens to derail the sport altogether. Enter the privately sponsored World Series Hockey (WSH) league, which aims to make hockey the "'sport of choice' for young Indians," and has started signing players to huge contracts. The draw to play for the unsanctioned tournament seems clear—a choice that the sport's governing body subsequently deemed worthy of disqualification from the Olympic team.

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Kevin Fixler is a writer based in Oakland, California. His work has appeared on Yahoo! and Sports Illustrated.

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