STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Now, as we cover the Olympics, some of you have asked for spoiler alerts, but for this next report that is probably not necessary. NPR's Mike Pesca is taking us inside the world of India's men's field hockey team. We're not too worried about spoilers. Not just because most Americans don't care much about field hockey, but because the Indian squad has done a pretty good job itself of spoiling things. As Mike reports, the team's record tracks with the overall state of the Indian Olympic effort.
MIKE PESCA, BYLINE: Indians are familiar with large mausoleums. They have the Taj Mahal. The field hockey stadium here at the Olympic park was threatening to turn decidedly sepulchral as the Indian team, thus far winless in the tournament, trailed Germany by three goals late.
RIMA BHUPTANI: Go India.
RISHI LAKHANI: Come on, India.
(SOUNDBITE OF HORN BLOWING)
PESCA: Although a couple of fans fought the malaise. Rima Bhuptani and Rishi Lakhani are London-born ethnically Indian and wonderfully passionate, if woefully under-informed.
BHUPTANI: It is disappointing, because we thought we could get at least one gold medal, maybe even a silver for maybe hockey, because it's the national sport over there. So you would have thought - the assumption would be they would do quite well.
LAKHANI: I totally agree, totally agree.
PESCA: In fact, India barely qualified for this men's field hockey tournament and have disappointed in archery, men's boxing and shooting. The world's first and third most populous nations each have over 60 medals so far. The world's second most populous nation, India, has three.
Up in the press box, Manik Banerjee, who covers Indian sports for a Kolkata newspaper, acknowledged the sad state of the Indian Olympic effort.
Does it bother you that India doesn't do better at the Olympics?
MANIK BANERJEE: Yeah, it hurts me. It hurts me very much. And I hope India comes up like China has, you know, come up. They're dominating sports these days.
PESCA: The Indian men's field hockey team, winner of gold in six straight Olympics, medalists in 11 of the 12 Olympics from 1928 to 1980, are so far the least successful hockey team in these games. Head coach Michael Nobbs, a former Australian national team player who took over the Indian squad last year, knows too well that his team lacks a champion's mentality.
MICHAEL NOBBS: Their forwards go into the circle, bang, bang, pushing all our players out of the way. We've got to be strong and tough. You know, I know we're not big enough yet, but you can still do it.
PESCA: You don't have to know a drag flicker from a goalkeeper's kicker to understand that Nobbs is speaking the international language of sport. He's the coach who's using the media to get through to his team, calling them out, saying what they lack is here, and patting his chest.
Sundeep Misra, who runs websites, including IndianHockey.com., agrees with Nobbs, saying that in India hockey is based on skills, not toughness.
SUNDEEP MISRA: You need to have character, that if a guy is standing in front of you, be willing to step forward, take him by the shoulders, go past him and score a goal. Don't be part of that, OK, he's taller than me, I have to beat him with the skill. If you can't beat him with the skill, beat him with the shoulder.
PESCA: A few of the factors that explain hockey's decline in India apply to other events in these games. There is the question of priorities. India has become so cricket crazy, the Olympic sports suffer. There's bureaucracy and there's poverty. Hockey is now played on high tech artificial surfaces, too expensive for a relatively poor country like India.
Perhaps the nation will rally around Mary Kom, who's guaranteed a medal of some color in women's boxing. The men's hockey team is guaranteed only its worst ever finish at the Olympics.
Mike Pesca, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.