With less than 30 days to go for the Tokyo Olympics, the frenzy is slowly engulfing the entire sporting world. While the Indian athletes carry out their high-octane practice sessions, it’s time for the hockey fans to relive the memories from the triumphant Olympic campaigns.
Indian hockey stalwart and former captain Ajit Pal Singh got nostalgic as he recalled his dream Olympic debut and India’s back-to-back bronze medal-winning feat at the 1968 Mexico and 1972 Munich Olympic Games.
“I was picked up for the coaching camp of the 1968 Olympic Games, while I was in college, representing my home state Punjab. I would say, I was the youngest player at the camp, and I feel I was very lucky that I ultimately got a chance to play in the 1968 Olympic Games,” recalled Ajit Pal Singh in the fourth part of Hockey India’s flashback series.
The 74-year-old further added: “Having lost the opening match against New Zealand, there was some reshuffling in the team, and I was brought in as the centre-half. My first Olympic match turned out to be against West Germany, which were one of the strongest teams during that time. I had butterflies in my stomach the night before the match, so you can imagine the pressure, we had already lost the first match, and we were supposed to pit against a quality side. I would say, I handled the pressure pretty well, and ended up contributing to the team’s 2-1 win. I never looked back from there, and eventually played all the matches at the Mexico Olympics.”
The Indian team led by two captains, Prithipal Singh and Gurbux Singh after losing their first match to New Zealand, went on to win each of their remaining league stage matches against teams like West Germany (2-1), Mexico (8-0), Spain (1-0), Belgium (2-1), Japan (5-0 walkout) and East Germany (1-0), but lost to Australia (1-2) in the semi-final.
For the first time in the Olympics history, India didn’t feature in the Final of the quadrennial Games. However, the Indian team didn’t return empty-handed as they beat West Germany 2-1 to clinch the Bronze medal.
“We went on to win each of our remaining league stage matches, but unfortunately, we lost to Australia in the semi-final and finished the campaign with a Bronze Medal. So, that was something really special, you know going for the first time, playing all the big matches, and coming back even with a Bronze medal, I think was a great achievement as far as the Olympics is concerned,” said the former centre-half.
A three-time World Cup medallist (bronze in ’71, silver in ’73, gold in ’75) and India’s only World Cup-winning captain, Ajit Pal was also a part of the Harmek Singh-led side that clinched the Bronze medal at the 1972 Munich Games, which was India’s 10th consecutive medal at the marquee event.
While recalling the team’s preparations and campaign at the 1972 Olympic Games, the Jalandhar-born player said, “Almost all the players were dropped after the Mexico Games, except four of us — Perumal Krishnamurthy, Harbinder Singh, Harmek Singh, and I could make it to the squad of the 1972 Olympics. As an experienced player, I would say, we did contribute to the team in the best way possible. We prepared really well under our coach KD Singh Babu, who led the 1952 Olympic-winning team, and a lot of top players from the 40s and 50s came in to help us at the coaching camp. At Munich also, we went with a target of winning the Gold medal, but unfortunately lost to Pakistan 2-0 in the Semi-Final, and that was a big loss, a big setback. Nevertheless, we came back with a medal, so all’s well that ends well.”
Padma Shri and Arjuna Awardee, Ajit Pal also extended his best wished to the Indian Hockey contingent, who will be taking part in the Tokyo Olympic Games 2020.
“Both are among the top teams, and I look forward to seeing them play at the Games. I know some of them personally, and I know how capable they are, and I believe they will do well. They should start well because that will help them gain confidence and momentum. They have my full support, and I wish them all the best from the core of my heart,” he signed off.