India, which was then part of the British Empire, took part in its first Olympic field hockey tournament at the Games in Amsterdam, and won it. This was the first in a series of eight victories up to 1980. The team, which started with a 6-0 win over Austria on 17 May 1928, had a real magician, Dhyan Chand, as one of its members.
Like the Games in Paris four years earlier, those in Amsterdam stretched over three months, and began not with the Opening Ceremony (held on 28 July), but with the field hockey tournament between nine teams in the brand new Olympic Stadium, on 17 May. The teams were split into two divisions, the A division (five teams) and the B division (four teams). The first in each division qualified for the final, and the two second-placed teams played for the bronze medal.
India, which would remain part of the British Raj until 1947, had sent its first athlete to the Games in Paris in 1900, but had not then taken part again until 1920, with four athletes and two wrestlers. In 1924, there were 14 athletes and tennis players. Amsterdam 1928 was thus the first time an Indian field hockey team had taken part in the Games. In this sport, England had won in London in 1908, ahead of Ireland, Scotland and Wales; and these players won in Antwerp in 1920 under the colours of Great Britain.
To create the best possible Indian team, an inter-provincial competition was organised beforehand, in which a player from Uttar Pradesh, Dhyan Chand, stood out. But the best was yet to come! Born on 29 August 1905 in Allahabad, the army officer was nicknamed “the wizard” or “the magician”.
A fantastic career
The Indian eleven played the whole Olympic tournament in Amsterdam without conceding a goal. Everything began on Thursday 17 May 1928 in front of the crowd at the Amsterdam Olympic Stadium, barely finished in time for the occasion. While Denmark beat Switzerland 2-1, India thrashed Austria 6-0. Dhyan Chand beat goalkeeper Karl Ördögh on four occasions. In front of the astonished spectators, the ball seemed glued to his stick, and the players on the opposing team appeared rooted to the spot, so easily did he weave his way between them.
The next day, India beat Belgium 9-0, but Chand scored only once, with his teammate Feroze Khan scoring five. On 20 May, India inflicted a 5-0 defeat on Denmark, with three goals by its magician. On 22 May, he scored a further four against Switzerland (6-0). India finished first in its division ahead of Belgium, with a 26-0 goal difference. The Netherlands won the other division, followed by Germany.
On 26 May, in front of more than 20,000 spectators, the final saw the home team playing Dhyan Chand’s team. He scored twice in India’s 3-0 victory. “The wizard” thus finished the tournament with a total of 14 goals. Legend has it that the Dutch officials took his stick apart to see if there was a magnet hidden inside it! One newspaper report described it thus: “This is not a game of hockey, but magic. Dhyan Chand is in fact the magician of hockey.” Germany joined India and the Netherlands on the podium thanks to its 3-0 win over Belgium in the bronze medal match.
An Indian sports legend
Chand and the Indian team repeated their achievements in 1932 in Los Angeles, where the Los Angeles Times named him best athlete of the Olympic Games; and then again in 1936 in Berlin, where posters all over the German capital proclaimed: “Visit the hockey stadium to watch the Indian magician Dhyan Chand in action.” During a 22-year career, until 1948, he scored over 400 international goals, 35 of them at the Games. Today, a bronze statue of him, stick in hand, gazes out over the city of Jhansi (Uttar Pradesh) from Sipri hill, and India’s national sports day is on 29 August, Major Chand’s birthday.
For their part, Indian teams went on to win gold in 1948, 1952, 1956, 1964 and 1980, a total of eight victories and more than any other country in field hockey at the Games. After a long period in the wilderness, things now seem to be looking up again, with India having reached the quarter-finals in Rio in 2016.