Heading into the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Dhanraj Pillay was upbeat about India’s chances of winning a medal in hockey. He was 32 at the time, still rated as one of the best in the game, and was confident the Indian team could go toe-to-toe with the likes of Netherlands, Germany and Australia on the biggest stage.
The last time India’s men’s hockey team had won an Olympic medal was way back in 1980 when they clinched gold in Moscow. But Pillay was full of optimism ahead of the Sydney Games.
After all, just two years earlier, he had guided India to their biggest triumph in decades. At the 1998 Asian Games in Bangkok, he was the captain of the team and the leading goal-scorer in the tournament as India bagged the gold medal.
In an interview with Rediff, just weeks before the 2000 Olympics, Pillay had said the Sydney Games would be his last and he wished to go out with a bang.
“That has always been my wish, and only goal left (winning an Olympic gold),” he had said. “I hope to realise it this time. Something tells me this team can win the gold... This will be my last Olympics. I have to go all out and prove that I am the best.”
Sadly for him, though, Pillay’s wish didn’t come true as India endured a forgettable campaign in Sydney.
India were placed in Group B along with hosts Australia, Argentina, Spain, South Korea and Poland. India beat Argentina convincingly and managed to edge out Spain, but a defeat to South Korea meant they finished third in the group and had to play in the 5-8 classifications. Eventually, they beat Argentina again but lost against Great Britain to finish seventh in the 12-team event.
Pillay is undoubtedly one of the greatest hockey players India has ever produced, but an Olympic medal is something that always eluded him in his storied career.
Having made his international debut in 1989, Pillay went on to play over 330 matches for the Indian team. It didn’t take him long to make the world sit up and take notice of his immense talent. He was known for his extraordinary pace, skillful dribbling and immaculate passes, and was regarded as one of the best strikers in the world through the 1990s.
However, despite all his personal accolades, he never quite came close to realising his ultimate dream of winning a medal on the biggest stage – the Olympics.
It started in 1992 at the Barcelona Games. India had just about managed to qualify for the Olympics that year despite having a number of talented young players in their ranks. But their campaign never really took off as they won just two of their five group games. Placed in the 5-8 bracket, India earned a narrow win over New Zealand but were edged out by Spain and finished seventh eventually.
Following that, it was a similar story in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Again, India won just two of their group games and for the fourth Olympics in a row, they found themselves in the 5-8 bracket. This time, they didn’t win either of their classification matches and finished eighth overall.
After the heartbreak of the 2000 Olympics, Pillay, once again, would’ve been hopeful of winning a medal at the Summer Games in 2004. Despite saying that the 2000 Olympics would be his last, he was still in good shape at the age of 36 as the Indian team prepared for Athens. They had won the Asia Cup gold medal a year before under his leadership and would’ve been hopeful of breaking the duck in what was definitely going to be his swansong.
However, it wasn’t to be. Yet again, the Indian team couldn’t advance from the group stage. Pillay scored a goal in their win over South Africa, but India lost their remaining five group games to eventually finish seventh in the event.
Pillay is one of the most celebrated Indian athletes. He led India to gold medals in the 1998 Asian Games and the 2003 Asia Cup, was the player of the tournament in the 2002 Champions Trophy, and is the only hockey player in history to play in four Olympics, four World Cups, four Asian Games and four Champions Trophies.
However, despite his record-breaking appearances at the Olympics, Pillay could never wear the medal of his dreams around his neck.
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