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On for the Gold Quest: The Big Stakes in Indian Women’s Hockey Team’s Tokyo Show

This Indian women’s hockey team, which finished fourth at the Tokyo Olympics, is better than most, provided more equality than most, and now it is time to demand more from the establishment.
Indian women's hockey team players after bronze medal match vs Britain at the Tokyo Olympics

Indian women’s hockey team players get into their huddle after their heartbreaking loss against Great Britain in the bronze medal match at Tokyo Olympics on Friday (Pic: HI).

Sports is never pure or easy, though it sometimes persuades you to believe it is. It is jarring, it is cruel and often when it ends it feels incomplete. Like a poem cut short before the final rhyme, the poet ready to speak and the audience still listening, but a referee calling it all to halt. That’s what a loss like this felt like, one where the Indian women’s hockey team roared back from two goals down, threatening to not just emulate but eclipse what their male counterparts had done 24 hours prior, before falling heartbreakingly short right at the finish line. 

The tireless defender Sushila Chanu’s WhatsApp status line says simply ‘don’t expect too much from others’ and yet ridiculously enough, almost always, watchers expect more from their athletes. While giving so much less.

“I think for the future, it is clear what the girls need… what the men have had for the past eight years,” Sjoerd Marijne said in the post match presser (his last as the coach of the Indian women’s team). “The matches they played to qualify for the Olympics were almost two years ago. They need to play more. They need something like the HIL, they need to play the Pro League and more tournaments in India. I hope this changes things.” 

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Savita Punia’s tears said it all. This was a moment to take not just a medal home but a revolution. Inconsolable, she sat at the edge of the circle, first with her face in her palms, hidden for the cameras, before allowing herself to look up, distraught, Janneke Schopman’s consoling arm on her shoulder. Every British player who passed her patted her on the head, but swiftly moved away. It was too uncomfortable to offer commiserations to someone so obviously in the throes of grief. And if at that moment, watching at home you didn’t feel your throat choke up, then you don’t quite understand what sport means. It’s cruel and more often than not unrewarding, but somehow it keeps you in.

Punia comes from Jodhkan in Haryana, a state ridiculously famous for its sporting prowess but also paradoxically its discrimination of women from all spheres of life. She has been India’s number one goalkeeper for over a decade now, giving up the mantle for a few games every couple of years almost only because she decides to lose form. It was her brilliant goalkeeping that helped India qualify for the Rio Olympics in 2016, 36 years after the women’s last Olympic appearance. It was her enhanced reflexes that allowed India to hold out against Australia in the quarterfinals earlier this week, and then, sadly it was her pads that the ball got through as Britain scored the winner, via Grace Balsdon in the fourth quarter. By many who don’t understand the compromised vision, body mechanics and pure reflex based reaction hockey goalkeepers need to have to save balls travelling at over a 100kmph, the words ‘she could’ve done better’ were handily used. 

There were moments even in the confines of the 60 minutes of hockey played worth some tears. 2-0 down, India looked out, the bravery of the last few games missing, the verve and energy too. And then a switch was flicked, and suddenly the team decided to start using their wings — specifically the one on the left — unleashing Salima Tete who turned running into the British circle a sport of its own. Each time the player from Simdega had the ball, Britain ran back in numbers. Anything could happen, and everything did. 

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Two quick drag flicks saw India get themselves back to par — Gurjit Kaur slotted both at the exact same spot with the exact same ferocity to produce the exact same result. And then the skies cleared, a moment of redemption and a moment for India to stop, pause and think about who we really are. The country, not the team. A melee in the circle saw a free ball drop to Vandana Kataria right at the goalmouth and where others may have hesitated — especially seeing the British goalkeeper Maddy Hinch’s questioning reaction — Kataria did what she does best. She put the ball in. 

And then she dropped her stick to the side, turned around, into the arms of her teammates, and screamed into the sky. This wasn’t a goal for India to take the lead, this was a goal for India to take heed. 

Over the past two days, Kataria has been through hell. Just like the rest of these 16 women, Kataria has been separated from her family for a large part of the last 18 months, locked in, training, recovering and preparing for the biggest moment of her career. It has taken great sacrifice and massive tolls on all of them, but no one has ever complained. For Kataria it has been worse. Her father Nahar Singh, passed away a few months ago at the family’s home in Haridwar. Stuck in a bio bubble in Bengaluru, Kataria couldn’t go home. 

After the team’s semifinal loss to Argentina, India’s other side — the side that regularly falls to the floor — reared itself for all to see. Kataria’s family were subject to casteist and abusive slurs from men who lived in their area. One of them, it was discovered, trained with her in her youth. Kataria hasn't spoken to her family about the incident but had heard enough to offer up her own thoughts. Her tweets, interactions with the media and statements did their part. That scream after the goal did more. 

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It has been two days since the incident, and while two members of the abusive party have been arrested, it's perhaps pertinent to note that no one from the political establishment, always keen to jump on gravy trains has offered any words to condemn this matter. Internal issues of inherent casteism have been relegated to the box called ‘ignore and silence’, but you have to wonder just how long this can go on. Taking credit for success — via congratulation and portrait imagery — while investing little in it is the way Indian sport has perennially functioned as a sport in itself. 

Indian women’s hockey is better than most, provided more equality than most, and now it is time perhaps to demand more. There are members of this team who are part of a generation near the exit door — Savita, Sushila and Vandana chief among them — but there is a younger generation (Salima Tete included) which deserves and desires more.

Even now, with focus on women sports (thanks to multiple medals) at an all time high, the All India Football Federation (AIFF) has chosen to not detail out a plan for women’s football for the rest of this year. In the recently released national team calendar for 2021, the women’s team does not feature at all. 

There has been over the past week an outpouring of love and support for this plucky, unheralded bunch of warriors who had, only last year qualified for this tournament by the skin of their teeth. In the aftermath of their victory, the Great Britain team were gracious enough to offer their own adulations noting that ‘the future of this squad was bright’. 

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As we swim in this kaleidoscope of ‘feel good about these girls’ currently engulfing us, it is time to ask for more. Many celebrities, politicos and corporate gurus have clambered on this self-hyped, self promoted, deservingly reserved train, but it's necessary to pause and wonder how many will stay when the year is out, the Olympics have gone and these moments removed from montages. How many will remember these names and how many will push their own girls into sport. 

“We weren’t just working to win a medal, but focussed on what we can learn from the last match,” Sjoerd Marijne said. “We wanted to develop an ethic, where they looked into the mirror and asked themselves if they gave a 100%, and if they did, that was enough.” 

It’s time to ask that of everyone in Indian sport.

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