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India's Underdog Field Hockey Squad Reflects Potential of an Underachieving Olympics Nation

India has long struggled in the Games despite being the world's second-most populous nation. But an upstart field hockey team is showing the potential of the country and its women.

TOKYO — When the final horn sounded, the women in white leaned heavily on their hockey sticks, exhaustion and dejection doubling them over. The Indian miracle machine had finally stopped running.

Around them, the women in black threw down their sticks and embraced. Favored Argentina had advanced in the Olympic field hockey semifinals, defeating India 2-1 and stopping their opponents’ do-or-die winning streak at three matches. After beginning this competition with three lopsided defeats, India had reversed its fortunes by beating Ireland and Japan to sneak into tournament play, then shocked undefeated Australia in the quarterfinals. A team led by women who came from rural poverty, some of whom were discouraged from playing sports, had reached its highest point in history by making the medal round.

And then they staked themselves to a 1-0 lead on Argentina, stoking hopes for another upset and an advance to the gold-medal game. But India couldn’t sustain its fast start, with a deflected shot off a penalty corner in the third quarter providing the margin of defeat. Wiping away tears and sweat as they exited steamy Oi Hockey Stadium, they must regroup quickly.

“The semifinals of the Olympics, our players have only watched those on TV,” coach Sjoerd Marijne, a Dutch expatriate, said after the loss. “Now they’re in it."

India's Salima Tete (C) is marked by Argentina's Julieta Jankunas (R) during their women's semi-final match of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games field hockey competition, at the Oi Hockey Stadium in Tokyo, on August 4, 2021.

India's Salima Tete is marked by an Argentinian player during the women's semifinal match.

In an underachieving Olympic nation, the hockey team has overachieved to reach a bronze-medal match against Great Britain Friday. The significance of this run has reached the highest levels in India, with prime minister Narendra Modi tweeting his thoughts: “Today and through the Games, our Women’s Hockey team played with grit and showcased great skill. Proud of the team. Best of luck for the game ahead and for future endeavours.” Marijne also tweeted that Modi called him to offer encouragement.

This is the crest of an Indian female wave of success in Japan. Three have won medals in three different sports—badminton, boxing and wrestling accounting for all of India’s medal total to date (a male wrestler will compete in a gold-medal match Thursday). Prior to Tokyo, Indian women had won a total of just five Olympic medals.

Historically, India has punched well below its per-capita weight in terms of medal count. With a population of 1.37 billion, it is the second-most populous nation on earth. Yet it had won a total of 28 medals prior to these Olympics, a staggeringly small number. (If cricket were an Olympic sport, that total would be higher.)

Eleven of those medals were won by India’s men’s field hockey team, the original world power in the sport. India captured the gold medal in every Olympics from 1928-56, and medaled in hockey in 10 straight Summer Games. The men’s team also will play in the bronze-medal match this week—which is more the expectation, albeit a somewhat dated one. Their last medal was won in 1980.

The women’s team is the revelation. “They have taken it to the next level,” says journalist Abhijit Deshmukh, here covering the team for Webdunia. “Most of the women in India are expected, still, to do the housework and be a good wife and good daughter. What this team is achieving today is an exciting moment. I think it’s going to change the face of Indian women.”

That is the team’s stated goal. “We want to inspire the little girls in India,” said team captain Rani Rampal. They want to give the next generation of female hockey players an easier road.

India's Gurjit Kaur (2-L) celebrates with teammates after scoring against Argentina during their women's semi-final match of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games field hockey competition, at the Oi Hockey Stadium in Tokyo, on August 4, 2021.

India's Gurjit Kaur (second from left) celebrates with teammates after scoring during the semifinal match against Argentina.

They are a compelling group. Rampal is the daughter of a man who sold bricks out of a horse cart and could scarcely afford to feed his family three meals a day when she was growing up. Rampal’s club coach provided her with hockey sticks and shoes, which were beyond the family’s means. Today, thanks to Rampal’s stardom, her family lives in a two-story home.

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Vandana Katariya, who scored a hat trick against Japan, used tree branches as makeshift hockey sticks as a child in a northern province because village elders disapproved of girls participating in sports. Others on the team faced criticism for playing a sport that required them to wear a skirt and shorts.

“We started this all and we were thinking what is the big goal for the women's [team],” Marijne said. “And it’s not about winning medals, it's about inspiring women in India, the position improving and inspiring young girls. That's what is the legacy that you want to create, that's the legacy the girls want to create. This is our thing and I am there to help, and a medal helps in these things.

“And I now think that a lot of girls in India will be inspired. OK, I also want this, I also want to let my dream come true. And that is something bigger than anything.”

India media members have noted this team is the script of a 2007 Bollywood movie come to life. “Chak De!” was a tale of an Indian women’s hockey team that wins the World Cup, inspired by the 2002 team that won the Commonwealth Games. This is the Olympics, something bigger than even Bollywood fiction could dream up.

The quarterfinal upset of Australia was very much the stuff of cinematic imagination. In the movie, India’s team is shellacked by the Aussies in the opening game but comes back to upset them for the title. Here in Tokyo, India was routed 5-1 by the Netherlands to start the competition and was facing the No. 2 team in the world in the quarters in Australia.

Gurjit Kaur scored the only goal on a drag-flick, and the Indian defense made it stand up. Indian goalie Savita Punia stopped nine shots—eight of them coming off penalty corners—for a shutout victory that earned her a new nickname: “The Wall.”

Players of India celebrate after the women's quarterfinal of hockey between Australia and India at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan, Aug. 2, 2021.

India players celebrate after the quarterfinal upset against Australia.

India has begun pumping more resources into sports other than cricket, said journalist Omprakash Munda, who is covering his sixth Olympics. With better facilities and increased funding, he sees less resistance to families letting their children become athletes. “Olympics, we are lagging behind,” Munda said. “But now parents want their children to come to sports, because the money is there.”

The population certainly is there for this sleeping giant to become a far more powerful Olympic contender. It will help if India follows the example set by its women’s hockey team and sets that gender free to chase athletic dreams, as opposed to inhibiting them the way it did previous generations.

“In India, you must think big, and that's what I said to the girls,” Marijne said. “If you aim for the highest, for the clouds, you will fall on the highest mountain. If you aim for the mountain, you will fall on the ground. We went for the clouds, and I said whatever happens after it doesn't matter, but that's where we have to aim for.”

Additional reporting for this piece was provided by Lila Bromberg.

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