Rajat Sharma

Why we should celebrate India winning a bronze in Olympic hockey

AKB4On Friday morning, the eyes of more than a billion Indians were glued to TV sets watching the Indian women’s hockey team taking on Great Britain in the fight for an Olympic bronze. Down by two goals in the beginning, our girls made a resounding comeback and gained a 3-2 lead over the British team. In the end, they lost the match 3-4 and, in the process, failed to win the bronze medal.

Had our girls won the bronze, it would have been a historic moment with both the men’s and women’s hockey teams returning home with bronze medals. Sadly, this did not happen, but our girls won the hearts of more than a billion Indians by showing grit and determination. They fought to equalize till the last minute.

On Thursday, the Indian national anthem tune was played twice at the Tokyo Olympics. First, when our men’s hockey team won the bronze defeating Germany, and secondly, when wrestler Ravi Kumar Dahiya had to settle for a silver medal in a tough fight against his Russian opponent. Our heart was filled with pride because our hockey team had won an Olympic medal after a gap of 41 years. There were tears of joy in the eyes of many who had last watched India win the hockey gold in the 1980 Moscow Olympics.

There was a time when India was the uncrowned king of hockey across the world. Our players like Major Dhyan Chand wove magic with their hockey sticks, but times have changed along with the rules of the game. Team India was written off in 2008, when it could not qualify for Olympics. Four years later, in 2012, we were at twelfth position, and in 2016 we lost in the quarter-final. It appeared as if Indian hockey will never regain its lost glory. At Tokyo Olympics, our team defeated Great Britain to reach the semi-final. Two days ago, we lost the semi-final to Belgium, and yet our hopes for a bronze did not fade away.

The battle for the bronze was contested fiercely. Germany scored two goals in succession, but 10 minutes later, India made a comeback. The Germans scored two more goals, but our boys fought back, equalized and gained a 5-4 lead. It was a heart-stopping finish during the last six seconds, when goalkeeper Sreejesh stood like a rock and padded the German hit off a penalty corner. By ending the medal drought in Olympic hockey, our boys have brought a remarkable turnaround. It heralds the hope for the return of a new golden age in Indian hockey.

The most iconic visual after the match was Sreejesh sitting atop the goal post, heaving a sigh of relief, smiling. He then tweeted: ‘Let me smile now’. In another image, Sreejesh was seen having a nimble bite at the bronze Olympic medal and he tweeted: “Yeah..it’s taste salty. Yeah..I remember, it’s my sweat from last 21 years”. Imagine, a hockey player, waiting for an Olympic medal for the last 21 years.

Sreejesh gave 1.3 billion Indians a chance to smile on Thursday. Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted: “Bravo Srejesh! Your saves played a big part in earning the medal for India. Congratulations and best wishes to you.” He replied: “Thank you very much Sir”.

This was Sreejesh’s third Olympics. He has medals from almost all international hockey events at his home, except the Olympics. His life’s ambition is now fulfilled. On Thursday morning, all members of his family had their morning bath, performed pooja, and sat glued to the TV set, watching the match. The tension was so much that his mom, walked out of the room, unable to watch the last six critical seconds, when Germany was going to take its last penalty corner. The moment, Sreejesh saved and Indian won the match, the room erupted with shouts of joy and celebrations followed.

Sreejesh is Team India’s most senior player. He has been a part of the national team for the last 15 years. It was he who saved two penalty strokes from Pakistan to win the Asian Champions Trophy in 2011. Five years later, he became the captain. His team reached the quarter finals at Rio Olympics. The same year, in 2016, his team won the silver medal at Champions Trophy. He was adjudged Goalkeeper of the Tournament in 2014 and 2018 Champions Trophy. The nation honoured him with Padma Shri in 2017.

There is another hero, Simranjit Singh. It was he who scored to get the equalizer against Germany. He also scored the fifth goal to put India ahead. He was given rest during the match against Belgium, but was put as midfielder on Thursday. He scored the first goal in the 17th minute and his second goal in the 34th minute.

There was celebration in his village in Gurdaspur, Punjab. His cousin, Gurjant Singh, also plays in the team. Simranjit played in the 2016 Junior World Cup and in the 2018 Champions Trophy. Till date, he has played 47 international matches for India and has scored 14 goals. Simranjit was not included in the original team for Tokyo Olympics, but when the International Olympic Committee allowed inclusion of two alternate players due to Covid pandemic, his name was included in the 18-member team. Simranjit did not get to play in the two opening matches, but after the team got a 1-7 drubbing from Australia, he was included in the playing eleven. He scored in his very first match against Spain, did not play in the semi-final against Belgium, but on Thursday, he was playing like a livewire, and laid the foundation for India’s win.

Another hero I would like to name is Rupinder Singh. His father was a hockey player but stopped playing due to financial crunch. To earn and save money, his mom used to stitch clothes for neighbours, and Rupinder used to skip one meal daily. He and his elder brother Amarvir wanted to become hockey players, but the family had the means to support only one as a hockey player. The elder brother yielded, left hockey, and Rupinder emerged as a state level player. He joined the national team in 2010 and became the mainstay of the team, first as drag flicker and then as defender for eight years. This was Rupinder’s second Olympics.

Manpreet Singh, 29, is the captain of India’s men’s hockey team. This was his third Olympics. He had debut for India at the age of 19. Manpreet is considered a midfielder magician. He has the skill to send the ball from midfield towards the goal area. On Thursday, against the Germans, he created several golden opportunities for his colleagues. He was made captain of the national team in 2017, and in 2019, he got the Player of the Year award from Federation of International Hockey. Manpreet was the flag bearer with boxer M. C. Mary Kom at Tokyo Olympics.

Special thanks to Odisha chief minister Naveen Patnaik, who sponsored both the men’s and women’s hockey teams of India, and arranged food, accommodation and training for all of them. A hockey stadium has been built in Bhubaneswar and another stadium is being built in Rourkela.

I would also like to praise Ravi Kumar Dahiya, the wrestler who won a silver medal for India on Thursday. He was pitted against reigning world champion Russian athlete Zavur Uguev in the final of 57 kg freestyle wrestling. It was heartening to hear from Dahiya, who said, he was fighting for a gold medal for India, but failed. “I made a mistake this time, but next time, I will get the gold”, he promised.

As congratulations poured in from politicians, statesmen and eminent personalities, I would like to say this: This is not the time to take credit for the toil and sweat of our athletes. This is the time to welcome them, to inspire them for getting more laurels in future and to give all the credit to the players themselves. Their toil and perseverance have brought praise for India.

There is no need for nitpicking about who built the stadiums and who made the policies for sportspersons. We should spend time on finding out how we got the medals, how a wrestler like Ravi Dahiya suddenly became a role model for youths, and how we can expect more Ravi Dahiyas to emerge from other states too.

In hockey, our players brought the Olympic medal home after a gap of 41 years. Instead of expressing happiness over their bronze medal, should we waste our time asking them how they failed to get the gold? To say that they failed to bring the gold and hence, this win was not worth a praise, is nothing but injustice to these hard working athletes.

I was hurt when I read Congress MP Shashi Tharoor’s tweet “As we in India celebrate the occasional bronze meal at the Olympics, look at the Chinese ultranationalists denouncing their athletes for winning silvers”. I think, such a remark does not reflect a true sportsman spirit. It goes against the sentiments of the nation Our athletes have raised India’s prestige on the world stage. By winning a medal, they have regained India’s past glory in the field of hockey and have rekindled pride in our national sport.

This bronze medal win will spur more youths to join the sport of hockey. By winning medals in Asian Games, Commonwealth Games and Olympics, wrestlers from Haryana have sent message across India that their state is now a nursery for wrestlers. Similarly, in hockey, this win will encourage state governments and the Centre to build more infrastructure and training centres for our hockey players, so that we can regain our lost glory in the field of hockey. The entire credit goes to our hockey players who brought about this turnaround – from dejection to hope.

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