Even though India’s National Sports Day is celebrated every year on his birthday August 29, Indian sporting legend Dhyan Chand is hardly celebrated as much as he deserves to be. A phenomenal athlete, Dhyan Chand spearheaded the Indian hockey team’s challenge in three Olympic Games between 1928 and 1936, earning gold medals in each edition. Dhyan Chand put Indian hockey on the world map back at a time when the India was still under British rule.

Dhyan Chand scored over 400 goals during his international career and played till he was 42. On his 112th birth anniversary, here are some excerpts from his autobiography Goal! about this time as a hockey player and exploits at the Olympics:

Leaving for the 1928 Olympics

“We sailed from Mumbai on March 10 on the P & O Kaiser-i-Hind, and what a quiet send-off it was! There were only three persons present at Mole station to bid us god-speed as the ship slowly steamed out of Ballard Pier – Indian Hockey Federation president Major Burn-Murdoch, IHF vice-president CE Newham and a journalist S Bhattacharjee. Such was the send-off accorded to India’s chosen team on whose shoulders rested the responsibility of demonstrating to the world India’s supremacy in this great amateur game of hockey.”

Olympic debut

“The 1928 Olympiad was the ninth of its kind, and it was at the request of the Indian Hockey Federation that hockey had been re-introduced in the Amsterdam Games. All these years our country was looking for an opportunity to demonstrate to the world her prowess in the world’s finest amateur game. You, therefore, will understand how eagerly and with what thoughts we awaited the day to dawn on May 17.

The three days prior to our opening Olympic fixture were spent quietly in our hotel in Amsterdam. Language was the chief obstacle and in spite of our best efforts, we could hardly be good mixers in social circles. Fashionable Dutch lasses, hockey enthusiasts all, flocked around us and wanted to fete us. But, as I have already narrated earlier, I kept myself strictly aloof.

The day of our dreams dawned. On May 17 we confidently marched into the stadium to make our Olympic debut. We had travelled thousands of miles for this purpose. People at home had their doubts as to the wisdom of India’s participation in the Olympic Games. We too had our misgivings till then, but on this day we had no doubts whatsoever. We were determined to show the world that in this game India was supreme.”

The Indian hockey team at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Olympic champions

“It was a sadly depleted team that opposed Holland in the final. Feroze Khan, Shaukat Ali and Kher Singh were on the sick list, and Jaipal Singh was not available. I have already narrated in an earlier chapter how Jaipal Singh’s disappearance in the most crucial game still remains a mystery. Poor Kher Singh could not participate in a single game in the Olympics. He had injured his knee earlier. Look at the skeleton side that was fielded in the final: Allen; Rocque and Hammond; Norris, Pinniger and Yusuf; Gateley, Marthins, Dhyan Chand, Seaman and Cullen.

I myself was ill, running a high temperature which persisted all through the game. For me there was no option. I was a soldier by profession and when the country’s honour was at stake, there was no alternative but to march boldly into the battlefield. That day our manager coined a slogan for us, “Do or Die.” I decided that if required I would die playing.

With such odds against us, led by captain Pinniger on whom Jaipal Singh’s mantle fell, we entered the field amidst thunderous cheers from a large crowd. With their own national team playing, the Dutch turned out in large numbers and the stands were full. It was a great game and the fine traditions of Indian hockey were demonstrated to the world.

Holland put up a very good fight. I was amazed to see them play considerably better than they did in the prior practice match against us. They too had adopted, it appeared, “Do or Die” tactics. In a way we were their masters in this game, and although we scored only three goals, our superiority was in evidence in all departments.

Thus on May 26, 1928, India was acknowledged throughout the world as the Olympic hockey champions. On May 29 we lined up at the Olympic Stadium to receive our gold medals, and believe me, that day our happiness knew no bounds.”

‘What is hockey?’

“The Indian Hockey Federation (IHF) was in two minds regarding participating in the 1932 Olympic Games. Los Angeles was more than twice the distance from India as was Amsterdam, and naturally, expenses would be much greater.

In those days the political atmosphere in the country was at a high pitch. Gandhiji was then in Simla, engaged in talks with Lord Irwin. Someone suggested that if Gandhiji gave his blessings to India’s participation in the Olympiad, and consent to an appeal issued in his name, the question of finance would be easily solved.

Mr Charles Newham was then in Simla in a professional capacity as a journalist. The IHF entrusted Newham with the task of approaching the Mahatma. With great difficulty, Newham succeeded in meeting Gandhiji amidst his hectic political activities and explained his mission.

Gandhiji in his own characteristic way asked Newham, “What is hockey?” A crest-fallen Newham had to return home, his mission unsuccessful.”

Arrival in LA

“After the ship moored, press photographers came aboard and were busy photographing the various teams. When our turn came to be photographed, all the press photographers requested the Indian hockey team to pose specially. We were lined up on the deck in the form of a crescent. We enjoyed the publicity the next day in the newspapers, the prominence given to our pictures and the elaborate write-up.

With our coats and our turbans, the Americans must have felt that India had sent a team composed of the leading Maharajas of the country. In America, every Indian was a Hindu and every well-to-do Indian was a Maharaja.

A local paper of Los Angeles wrote:

‘All the colour, glamour and pageantry of Rudyard Kipling’s India might well have found its incarnation in the personnel of the Indian hockey team, which is to represent the land of Mahatma Gandhi.

So agile are the members of the team that they can run the full length of the hockey field, juggling a small wooden ball with the flat of a hockey stick.

One who knows nothing of the rigours of hockey should take a warning here. Don’t get in the line of fire on a hockey field, for the hockey ball, driven by a forehand or a backhand, is almost as deadly and as accurate as a cannon ball.

Should one doubt this, just let them watch the Indian players in their daily practice on the turf of the University.’

The Indian hockey team at the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Great Britain snub

“After winning the Olympic championship in 1932 at Los Angeles, we made a whirlwind tour of the European continent. On that occasion we spent a few days in London on a holiday. The English Hockey Association took no notice of us, let alone think of playing a friendly game against us.

A similar experience befell us again in 1936 when after winning the Olympic title in Berlin, we spent a few days holidaying in London on our way back to India. Of course we were not interested in any more hockey, but the point I am stressing is that the English Hockey Association again disregarded our presence on their soil. However, the same association arranged matches for the Afghanistan hockey team which also participated in the Berlin Olympics and were in London at the same time as us.”

1936 Berlin Olympics final

“A crowd of 40,000 which included the Maharaja of Baroda, the Princess of Bhopal and a large number of Indians who had travelled from all over the Continent and England, had turned up to witness the final. The vast crowd cheered as both teams entered the field. In contrast to our despondency, the Germans appeared to have the feeling that they were up against an inferior side.

Germany adopted India’s game of short passes and at the interval we were up by only one goal. After the interval we made an all-out attack and the Germans completely collapsed. They found to their cost that the adoption of Indian tactics would not do.

When Germany was four goals down, a ball hit Allen’s pad and rebounded. The Germans took full advantage of this and made a rush, netting the ball before we could stop it. That was the only goal Germany would score in the match against our eight, and incidentally the only goal scored against India in the entire Olympic tournament. India’s goal-getters were Roop Singh, Tapsell and Jaffar with one each, Dara two and myself three.”

The Indian hockey team at the 1936 Berlin Olympics (Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Best moments of my life

“Some have asked me what were the best and most interesting moments of long hockey career. A very exciting moment in my life was when I met Don Bradman in Adelaide in 1935, when the great cricketer posed for a photograph along with me, Pankaj Gupta and Roop Singh.

Another exciting moment was when I heard that I was elected to captain India in the 1936 Olympics. Selection as the India captain certainly was least expected by me.

There was an occasion when I felt that I was the top dog. That was when I met the Maharajkumar of Vizianagaram (Vizzy) on board the P & O Strathmore during our return home from the Berlin Olympics.

Vizzy was returning from England after the much discussed India tour of England, and I was returning after winning the Olympic title for the third successive time. I felt I was certainly above the ordinary when I posed for a picture with Vizzy on the sun deck. Temporarily I felt I was a couple of inches above the earth with my chest bulging out.”