New Delhi: Thursday, 29 August, will see a number of sporting events hosted across the country. It’s also when President Ram Nath Kovind will give away the Rajiv Gandhi Khel Ratna, Arjuna and Dronacharya awards. It’s a celebration that takes place every year — in honour of legendary hockey player Dhyan Chand who was born on this day in 1905 — as India’s National Sports Day.
Known as the ‘Wizard of Hockey’, Dhyan Chand displayed such mastery and control over the ball that more than once, authorities across the world broke his hockey stick to check if there was a magnet inside.
He is the man who scored more than 400 goals in his international career and led India to the top of the Olympic podium in 1928, 1932 and 1936.
Dribbling his way through life
In his autobiography, Goal, Dhyan Chand writes that he was born in Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh, in 1905, and joined the Indian Army at the age of 17 in 1922 and started playing for the forces the same year.
Due to his superior dribbling skills, he was selected to play for the Indian Army team at the age of 20 and was part of the New Zealand tour in 1926, in which the team won 18 out of 21 matches, drew two and lost one. As a result of his splendid performance, Dhyan Chand was promoted to the rank of Lance Naik on his return to India.
In 1928, the Indian team made its hockey debut at the Amsterdam Olympics. Under the leadership of Dhyan Chand, the team won the gold at the Olympics and he led the way, scoring 14 goals.
In the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, India crushed hosts USA 24-1 in the semis and Japan 11-1 in the finals. Dhyan Chand scored 12 goals and his brother Roop Singh contributed 13 goals in the tournament. Shortly after their trailblazing performance, the two were dubbed the ‘hockey twins’.
When Dhyan Chand met Hitler
Four years later, in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the Indian hockey team’s campaign started with a 4-1 loss at the hand of the hosts in a warm-up match, which led to some controversy over who should be included.
Dhyan Chand made a couple of changes to the squad, after which the Indian team resumed its winning spree, crushing Japan (9-0), USA (7-0) and Hungary (4-0) in the group stage. The French team was defeated 10-0 in the semifinal and the Indian team was ready to clash with the Germans in the final and avenge the loss of the warm-up game.
The air was thick with anticipation on the day of the final and top Nazi officials, including Hermann Goering, Joseph Goebbels and Adolf Hitler, came to support their ‘racially superior Aryan team’ against defending champions India. At half time, India was holding on to its one-goal lead. The Germans then adopted a rough approach and, as a result, Dhyan Chand was marked tightly and even lost one tooth in a tackle.
The Indian players then improvised by removing their shoes and played barefoot or in slippers, unleashing hell on the Germans. The Indian side smashed seven more goals, with Dhyan Chand scoring a hat-trick, while the hosts managed to score just one goal — the only goal India conceded in the entire tournament.
Hitler, it is believed, was so upset that he left the stadium even before the match was over. But he returned later for the medal presentation, and the next day, offered Dhyan Chand a position in the German Army, which the hockey player refused.
The Indian contingent was one of the few to not give Hitler the customary Nazi salute at the opening ceremony.
‘An exceptionally humble man who still has not got his due’
In 1935, after watching Dhyan Chand play, legendary cricketer Don Bradman had said, “He scores goals like runs in cricket.”
During his last tournament — the tour of East Africa in December 1947 — 43-year-old Dhyan Chand scored 61 goals in 22 matches. He retired from hockey the next year, slowly phasing himself out of competitive matches and moving, eventually, to coaching. Such was his legacy that many countries, including the UK and the Netherlands, have erected a statue in his honour.
But it’s not just about goals.
Hockey stalwart and Olympian Zafar Iqbal tells ThePrint, “He was an exceptionally humble man. I met with him twice in the Indian Airlines colony in 1978 as he stayed with his son Ashok. Dhyan Chand was such a grounded person that once we travelled together to his ancestral home in Jhansi in the 3rd class of railways and we were standing during most of the journey as there was no space in the unreserved coaches.”
In 1956, Dhyan Chand retired from the Army as a Major. He passed away on 3 December 1979 in Delhi.
Iqbal says the nation has not given Dhyan Chand his due. He recalls that after Dhyan Chand’s death, a benefit match was organised at Delhi’s Shivaji Stadium in his honour to support his family and only Rs 11,638 was collected.
His son, Ashok, also a former hockey player and an Olympian, felt that no political party has recognised his father’s contribution.
In 1956, Dhyan Chand was awarded India’s third highest civilian honour, Padma Bhushan.
In 2013, the rules for awarding of the Bharat Ratna — India’s highest civilian honour — were amended to include sportspersons.
There have been multiple appeals to award the Bharat Ratna to Dhyan Chand posthumously. However, the first and so far the only sportsperson to have been awarded the Bharat Ratna is Sachin Tendulkar, leading to controversy and criticism, not least of which was due to the fact that once again cricket walked away with all the glory, leaving other sports to bite the dust.