Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Sunday, during his "Mann Ki Baat" radio address, said a lot of things about the just-concluded Rio Olympics and the Indian athletes who shone in it. However, he started his speech with hockey wizard Dhyan Chand, reminding the nation that Aug. 29 was the day this sporting legend was born in 1905, and hence this day was celebrated as Rashtriya Khel Diwas.
Who was Dhyan Chand?
Born on Aug. 29, 1905, to a Rajput family in Allahabad, Dhyan Chand would grow up to join the Army, just like his father Sameshwar Singh. It was in the Army where Dhyan Chand took up hockey, having never played it seriously before, according to his own recollections. His younger brother Roop Chand would later follow in his footsteps.
His real name was Dhyan Singh, but because he used to practise at night only in moonlight — floodlight would come to India much later, and to hockey even later — his friends and colleagues gave him the name "Chand," meaning moon.
The Indian Hockey Federation had lobbied massively for the reintroduction of field hockey in the 1928 Olympics, and after they managed to make that happen, were looking for the best team to send there. For this, they organised an inter-provincial tournament in 1925, but the Army team, for which Dhyan Chand played, was not among them. He obtained permission from his team to play for the United Provinces — one of the five teams in the competition.
Overcoming financial difficulties and sickness in the last match, India won the gold in the 1928 Amsterdam Summer Olympics, a feat they would go on to repeat in the next two Olympics. And on all three occasions, Dhyan Chand would star.
In fact, he would be selected without formalities for the 1932 Los Angeles Olympics when his platoon refused him leave for another inter-provincial tournament for the games, while the rest of his teammates had to participate. India would win the gold again by defeating hosts USA by a 24-1 margin, a record that would take more than 70 years to break.
He would again be refused permission to participate in the inter-provincial tournament before the 1936 Berlin Olympics, but having been chosen to captain the team, was again selected without formalities. The team won the gold again, allowing only a single goal to be scored against them throughout the tournament.
Legend has it that Hitler, impressed by Dhyan Chand's mastery of the game, offered him German citizenship and a higher rank than he had in the Indian Army. He refused.
Long before this, Dhyan Chand had earned the moniker of "wizard" or "magician" of hockey, something Modi referred to when speaking about him in the "Mann Ki Baat" programme on Sunday. He quoted a famous sentence by cricketing legend Sir Donald Bradman about Dhyan Chand: "He scores goals like runs." The compliment was all the more significant because it came from a man who had finished his Test career with a Test carrier of 99.94.