Pakistan have earned 10 Olympic medals in total – and eight of them were won by their powerhouse men’s hockey side. Few teams are remembered with more affection than their last gold-medal winners, from Los Angeles 1984. Hameed Khalid, the side’s star down the left wing, recalls an extraordinary journey from playing street ball to the top of the Olympic podium.
When most people think of sport in Pakistan, their mind usually turns to cricket. These days it is like a religion; its players are superstars. But back in the sixties, seventies and eighties, hockey reigned supreme in the Asian country.
“Hockey was much more popular than cricket back then,” said Hameed Khalid, one of the key players at the Olympic Games Los Angeles 1984. “We had won the Olympic gold medal in 1960 and 1968, and the World Cup in 1971, 1978 and 1982. In schools and colleges, it was all about hockey. You’d play during your break time for an hour. You would play on your street. Every kid wanted to be a hockey player. They were heroes, like basketball players in the USA. We listened to commentary on the radio, and wanted to be like them.”
Khalid helped inspire Pakistan to their third gold medal in the men’s event in August 1984: those three wins remain his country’s only Olympic golds. Competition for places in the squad was incredibly fierce, but the left winger was one of the hardest, most dedicated players around.
“I had to struggle to become a player,” said Khalid, now 59. “I remember asking my mum for a stick and she said, ‘No, there is no need to play this game’. Eventually, aged 14, I got enough money and travelled one hour from my city, Gujranwala, to buy a stick. I loved it and practised a lot.
“I then went to my local club and sat on the sidelines. Nobody asked me to play, but eventually I befriended some players and got a match. I worked so hard on my game. Three hours in the morning, three hours every night.
“I would also train by doing eight or nine 100m sprints on sand. It got me really fit. I was so tired, sometimes I didn’t know where I was. But then I would stand up and run 100m again. I’d say, ‘I have to get to the Olympics, I have to work’. When I was eventually selected for the Olympics, I was so excited I didn’t sleep for two days straight.”
Hockey was tactically different back then. Indian and Pakistani players were renowned for their tricky, skilful, dribble-and-dodge style of play, in an era before the event became dominated by powerful, super-fit athletes. “We had no real training facilities, and I didn’t even have a good pair of shoes to play in until 1980, when my coach gave me a pair,” Khalid said. “I was so happy when he did; I ran round my room in them for ages.
“Travelling to America was very exciting. I had been to Europe to play hockey before, but never the USA. The President of Pakistan gave us a reception at his residency before we went. I was 22, and I’d achieved my dream to become an Olympian.
“Los Angeles was amazing. We went to the beach, to Hollywood, all the famous sites. But the best place was the Olympic Village. I still remember it very clearly. We went running round, and all you could see was people in their colours from everywhere in the world. It was just track tops and shorts, and everyone was so friendly. I wish the whole world could be like the Olympic Village. No politics, no abuse, everyone as one. You just concentrate on what you are good at.”
Pakistan were unstoppable at LA ’84, and Khalid was a force to be reckoned with. “We were a very good team,” he said. “We played so well together. We had Hassan Sardar up front scoring the goals, our captain was an excellent leader and we had a very good young goalkeeper.
“I was pleased with how I played. We beat Australia in the semi-final, who were a team that we had struggled against in the past. After the match, their coach said that he hadn’t fielded one of their best players, David Bell, because he didn’t think he was physical enough to stop me. They put a younger boy on me instead. We won 1-0. But hockey is a team game. We all played our roles very well.”
The final, against West Germany, went to extra time, and Pakistan’s fitness proved vital. “It was 1-1, but we knew we were going to win because it was so hot and we coped much better with the heat,” Khalid said. “We were physically better than them, and we eventually made the score 2-1.
“I remember afterwards there was lots of crying. Very few players who play this game get to play in an Olympic final and win a gold medal. Standing there with our anthem playing and our flag flying, I can never forget it.”
Immediately afterwards, he phoned his mum. “I said, ‘Remember when you told me not to play hockey?’ and we both laughed,” he said. “Everyone was ringing them and coming round their house at 3 a.m. to celebrate.”
Life would never be the same. Upon their return to Asia, the team were awarded land in Islamabad, given presidential medals and handed promotions – Khalid worked for the national airline – and were driven through the streets as heroes. “It took us three hours for us to get 9km; there were so many people,” he said. “I still get recognised all the time to this day.”
Khalid still works at the airline, but he is now also a selector. He coached the Pakistan national side who finished runners-up at the 1990 World Cup and won the 1994 Champions Trophy and the 1994 World Cup. Alas, he fears that his country’s golden days in the sport may not return any time soon. The reason? In a word, cricket.
“Cricket became very professional in Pakistan in a way hockey didn’t,” Khalid said. “Everyone watches the game on TV, it is very glamorous, the players are very famous. There is so much money in the sport. Hockey isn’t as professional so it can’t appeal as much.
“But a lot of people in Pakistan still love hockey, and we don’t forget that it is the sport we won our gold medals in. Hockey has become very modern but we are trying to catch up. We must work hard to do it.”
From those sandy 100m drills to the present day, nobody has worked harder for the game than Khalid.