Sometimes in life we are fortunate to meet someone who reawakens in us a spark, opens a door of memories of someone we have admired and remember with pride. I had such an experience recently, when I met Ashok Kumar Singh, the son of one of India’s greatest ever hockey players, Dhyan Chand, known as The Wizard”. Ashok was himself a highly successful hockey player, scoring the winning goal in the 1975 World Cup Final against Pakistan.
His father, Dhyan, played at a time before India had achieved Independence, a fact that upset him after the India team he captained won the Olympic final in Berlin in 1936. The victory came under the British flag, and not that of his beloved India. In fact he had illegally hidden an India flag in his luggage. After the match, his team mates noticed he was shedding tears under his flag. His place in the 1936 Olympics was enshrined for other reasons which I will come to shortly.
Dhyan Chand, born in Allahabad in 1905, was an army man, like his father, having joined the army when he was 16 years of age. It was then that his interest in hockey got serious. He played for the army team, often practising alone under the moonlight. This is how he came to be known as Dhyan Chand (Chand meaning moon) rather that Dhyan Singh, his family name. He was selected for the India Hockey team to tour New Zealand in 1926. That team scored a total of 192 goals during the tour, and Chand scored 100 of those. In 1928 he represented India as part of the team that won gold in the Olympics in Amsterdam. The world took notice of the incredible skill, with one journalist reporting: “It looks like he has some invisible magnet stuck to his hockey stick so that the ball does not leave it all.” There is a story that the Dutch officials broke his stick to check this was not the case. A later Indian Olympic gold medallist, Keshav Chandra Dutt spoke of his genius understanding of the game: “His was easily the hockey brain of the century. He could see a field the way a chess player sees the board.” Olympic gold was again achieved in Los Angeles in 1932, where he played alongside his brother Roop Singh. The final, against the United States, was won by a historic margin of 24–1, 8 of those goals scored by Chand and 10 by his brother Roop.
The 1936 Olympics in Berlin is the one for which he is remembered most. These were the Olympics that Adolf Hitler wanted to use to showcase the supremacy of the “Aryan” Germans. India played Germany in a warm-up match which they surprisingly lost 4–1. Chand, the Captain, made a number of changes to the team and they went on to make their way to the final, again playing the host country, Germany. All over Berlin the media headline was: “The Olympic Complex now has a magic show too. Visit the hockey stadium to watch the Indian magician Dhyan Chand in action.”
Hitler himself was there, as well as Joseph Goebbels and Hermann Goering. It was a tough game. India led by a margin of only 1–0 at half time. As the match went on the Indians removed their shoes- the pitch was too slippery and suddenly the goals started coming, with Chand himself scoring a hat trick. Hitler left the grounds before the match was over with a humiliating defeat of 8–1 for the Germans. He did return for the medal presentation and saluted the skills of the Indian team. So impressed was he with the skills of Dhyan Chand that he offered him German citizenship, the post of Colonel in his army and asked him to play on the national hockey team. His offer was refused politely but firmly, saying: “I have to serve my country and cannot leave it.” It is said that Hitler even tried to buy Dhyan Chand’s hockey stick! It makes me smile that the final was played on 15th August, the same date that 15 years later marked the end of British rule in India.
It is the qualities of humility and love of his country that I admire most about him. As he said in his 1952 autobiography, Goal; “Nowadays I hear of the princely comforts provided for national teams travelling overseas, and fuss players raise if they happen to miss even a cup of tea. When we used to travel, the name of our country and the game were the only two things that mattered.”
Unlike sports heroes today, his success as one of India’s greatest ever hockey players did not change his life in any material way. He returned to his regiment in India, living an ordinary life. He retired from the army in 1956 and died on 3 December 1979. As is often the case in life, he has been honoured after his death perhaps more than when he was alive. The Dhyan Chand Award for Lifetime Achievement in Sports and Games was inaugurated in 2002. Since 2012 it is awarded on National Sports Day which is celebrated on his birthday — 29th August.
I hope you will be inspired to strive to be your best in whichever field you choose, like Dhyan Chand never lose sight of the pride you hold for your country of birth.