The British influence on India has not been insignificant. From the mid-19th to mid-20th century, the British introduced the railway system, the legal system, the English language, and sports like cricket and field hockey. In fact, while India was under British rule, India was the dominant force in field hockey, winning gold at the 1928, 1932 and 1936 Olympics.
In 1947, India gained independence, although parts of the country were parsed off to create the dominion of Pakistan. This “partition” resulted in mass migrations of Muslims into Pakistan as well as Hindis and Sikhs into India. These migrations were traumatic for the tens of millions of people who were uprooted. And as you can imagine, the players on the Pakistan field hockey team had played on previous India championship teams, and knew their counterparts on the Indian team intimately.
And yet, after the partition, India continued to dominate, winning gold in 1948, 1952 and 1956. But Pakistan was getting closer, losing 1-0 to India in the finals in the 1956 Melbourne Games. In Rome, Pakistan did what Indians feared, finally winning gold in Rome.
So the stage was set in Tokyo for a re-match of the two field hockey powers. “The tension was there as many of the players had migrated during the partition, many of them joining the other side,” Gurbux Singh, a full-back on the 1964 India team told me. “We lost for the first time in 1960, and we lost to Pakistan again in the finals of the Asian Games in 1962. It was so emotional as the whole country wanted us to win.”
And win they did. 1-0.
Many of the 2,000 attendees of the finals match at Komazawa Hockey Stadium poured onto the pitch, embracing the players from India, and breaking into spontaneous dance. The weight of an entire nation off their shoulders, the team stood proud listening to their nation’s anthem at the medal ceremony. “Tears came to my eyes when the Indian flag rose,” he said.
“In India, the reaction was great,” said center-forward Harbinder Singh, another member of that gold-medal winning team. “When our airplane arrived in India, people came on the runway. They were beating drums. A lot of people entered the plane and lifted us on their shoulders. And then there were big crowds and processions, people throwing garlands and flowers, dancing in front of our cars.”
“I really felt we did something for our country and ourselves,” reflected Gurbux Singh. “This is the greatest thing an athlete can do.”