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Thursday, August 18, 2022

Explained: Why is Dhyan Chand important for Indian sport?

Dhyan Chand was the first superstar of hockey, considered a wizard or magician of the game.

Dhyan Chand during the 1936 Olympic semi-final against France. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna Award will now be named after Dhyan Chand. This rechristening of the country’s highest sporting honour after one of the country’s legendary names could be termed political one-upmanship or a decision that didn’t come a day too soon, depending on the way one looks at it. But what can’t be denied is the emotional resonance Dhyan Chand’s name carries and what he meant for Indian hockey, and Indian sports in general.

Who was Dhyan Chand?

Quite simply, he was the first superstar of hockey, considered a wizard or magician of the game. He was the chief protagonist as India won three consecutive Olympic hockey gold medals — Amsterdam 1928, Los Angeles 1932, and Berlin 1936. He is said to have wowed the watching public with his sublime skills, intricate dribbling and gluttonous scoring ability.

During those tournaments, there was no team that could compete with India — and most of the matches saw huge victory margins.

India beat hosts the Netherlands 3-0 in the 1928 final, the United States were thrashed by a scarcely-believable margin of 24-1 in the 1932 gold medal match, while Germany went down 8-1 in the 1936 decider.

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In all, Dhyan Chand played 12 Olympic matches, scoring 33 goals.

Dhyan Chand in action during the 1936 Berlin Olympics. (Twitter/Olympics)

What are some of the tales and anecdotes associated with Dhyan Chand?

Some of the stories about Dhyan Chand’s prowess with a hockey stick are difficult to confirm while others are definitely apocryphal.

It is said that once his sublime skill and close control of the ball aroused such suspicion that his stick was broken to see whether there was a magnet inside. One has to remember that the game was played on natural grass in those days in contrast to the astro turf now, and the surface would often be bumpy and uneven, making ball control difficult for lesser mortals.

During the 1936 Berlin Games, German Chancellor Adolf Hitler — a proponent of Aryan racial superiority — was so enamoured with Dhyan Chand’s play that he offered him German citizenship and the post of Colonel in his country’s Army, a proposition the Indian ace refused.


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Why does the name evoke such emotion?

Dhyan Chand played during India’s pre-independence years, when the local population was subjugated and made to feel inferior by the ruling British. Hence, seeing an Indian dominating the Europeans in a sport invented by them evoked a lot of pride in them.

There has been a long-running campaign arguing that Dhyan Chand be posthumously awarded the Bharat Ratna, the country’s highest honour.

Before Independence and for some years after that, hockey was the only sport in which India consistently excelled at the international and Olympic stage. In fact, starting from Amsterdam 1928, India won seven of the eight hockey gold medals at the Games. Apart from K D Jadhav’s wrestling bronze at Helsinki 1952, India had to wait until Atlanta 1996 and tennis player Leander Paes for an Olympic medal in a sport other than hockey.


There were other great contemporary players like K D Singh ‘Babu’, Roop Singh, and Balbir Singh, but Dhyan Chand’s name was always taken first.

There has been a long-running campaign arguing that Dhyan Chand be posthumously awarded the Bharat Ratna, the country’s highest honour. There was a big debate around the time of the retirement of cricketer Sachin Tendulkar in 2013 about which sportsperson, if any, was deserving of the accolade. Tendulkar was eventually conferred the honour, but arguments for Dhyan Chand have continued nonetheless.

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How has Dhyan Chand been recognised till now?

His birthday, August 29, is celebrated as National Sports Day with the President giving away the Arjuna Awards and the other honours — including the one now named after Dhyan Chand himself.

An award for lifetime achievement in sport is already named after him. The Capital’s National Stadium was renamed Major Dhyan Chand National Stadium.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi pays floral tribute to Indian Hockey player Dhyan Chand in 2016. (File/ANI)

Why is the renaming of the award on Friday significant?

The eight gold medals in hockey have often been termed as the millstone around the necks of the subsequent generation of players. The modern game is an altogether different sport from the one played in Dhyan Chand’s era. The Europeans and Australians have become much more proficient over the decades, while the change of surface has put a premium on fitness, speed, stamina, and physical strength.


India had not managed to get into the top four at the Olympics since the boycott-affected Moscow Games in 1980. The later generations may have felt out of touch with the golden years, about which one could only read in books or listen to in tales of the protagonists and those who witnessed the heroics.

In that context, the performance of the Indian men’s and women’s hockey teams in Tokyo can re-ignite large-scale interest in the game. Hockey may not have a fandom like cricket, but it’s definitely followed, especially when India play a major tournament. Renaming the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna after Dhyan Chand may ensure that the current and subsequent generations know about the original superstar of hockey.

First published on: 06-08-2021 at 06:53:42 pm
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