Then and now: Somaya (centre) at the 1988 Seoul Olympics, and Somaya at his Mumbai home in July 2021.
M.M. Somaya captained 11 Indian hockey players at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. He went on to lead teams of almost 1,200 employees in a stellar corporate career with Bharat Petroleum (BPCL).
Somaya retired in 2017 as executive director of BPCL’s aviation fueling and lubricant businesses.
Prior to the 1988 Seoul Games, Somaya had won the gold medal as a member of the Indian team at the 1980 Moscow Olympics. He was just 21, and on top of the world. But even in that euphoric phase of life he was clear he wanted to do well post-career.
“At that time hockey players were getting jobs that were not commensurate with their standing. A clerk’s job, maybe a TC’s (railway ticket checker) job. But I was always keen on a good career,” Somaya tells Moneycontrol from his Mumbai home before settling down to watch the Tokyo Games opening ceremony. “I felt hockey players who had achieved so much, played for the country, needed to have leadership roles. You learn so much in sport as a leader. You are better at leadership than any of the man managers, as they call themselves.”
Somaya studied at Mumbai’s St Mary’s school and St Xavier’s college. Tall and driven, he aced examinations as well as sports tournaments. At one point he was playing not just varsity hockey but football as well.
Somaya credits the tradition of Jesuit education of pushing students towards all-round development.
“I studied in good institutions. The Jesuit system of education, where they place equal focus on sports, academics and extra-curricular activities, I think that was beneficial to me in the long run,” the Arjuna Award winner says.
By 20, Somaya was already on the verge of playing for India. This created a problem. Somaya had no time to get a post-graduate degree, which he very much wanted. He had even enrolled at Government Law College in Mumbai.
Yet, he did not use his fast-developing hockey career as an excuse to drop his lofty professional goals. Besides, he had two examples of academic merit in the hockey fraternity whom he could look up to. One was Dr Vece Paes, the 1972 Olympics bronze medallist, and father of tennis ace Leander Paes. The other was Somaya’s teammate Zafar Iqbal, a civil engineer by qualification.
Somaya also took a cue from Ajit Wadekar, the former India cricket captain, who was also a top-grader.
“Vece Paes was a senior to me and I used to always hear that despite him being a player he was also a doctor. He was one of the role models I had. In Bombay itself there was Ajit Wadekar, well into his corporate life then,” Somaya remembers.
Of Zafar, the man he succeeded as India captain, Somaya says, “He was drawn to academics as his father was a chemistry professor at Aligarh Muslim University. He became a civil engineer and was a great example of how successful one can be, because he carried it forward. He also finished as an executive director for Indian Airlines. A degree is just the beginning. But to follow it up with a career of 25-30 years, you need to be dedicated and you need to have consistency.”
Somaya is grateful to BPCL for what he has achieved. For one, they put him through several programs from pedigreed institutions such as ISB Hyderabad, Wharton and Arthur D. Little. To a great extent, this compensated for the post-graduation he had missed out on. BPCL were also tough on him if needed and he understood that.
“The training that the company gave me, the exposure… they gave me leadership roles and sometimes a stern word or two as well,” Somaya says. “The company had around 14,000 employees. Many of them were engineers, management graduates or both. I had to be on top of my game if I was to lead teams of 500-600 people. To eventually finish in the senior management council, where there were only about 12 of us who’d take important decisions for the company, was satisfying.”
Balancing sports and education is a challenge that has vexed athletes and their parents forever. Somaya’s advice is that parents, the child and its mentors should take a decision when the child is about 12.
“When a child reaches 12 or thereabouts, one gets a fair idea about how he or she is going to do. But it should be the joint decision of the parents, the child and the school, or the teacher, whether to concentrate on sports or academics. That decision is critical,” Somaya says.
In any case, he feels athletes have to study, unless they are playing at a level where they are earning well from the sport. And if they do have a good degree, they must make it count.
“I don’t believe in studying for the sake of saying ‘I was an engineer/ management student’. If you are one, then you really need to bring it to effect,” Somaya says. “So yes, sportspersons must study. Post-graduation is important, given how competitive things are. They must secure themselves for the journey after sport.”