Eight gold. One silver. Two bronze. Eleven medals of a total of 28 won by India at the Olympics have come from field hockey. Make no mistake, the Indian hockey team won medals at the Summer Games before it was considered cool. They stood on the podium to the general bewilderment of Adolf Hitler in Berlin. They gave an inferiority complex to Western countries whose idea of field hockey developed after encountering bewitching Indian men who routinely composed haikus with hockey sticks.
Some of the above-mentioned reasons perfectly capture why there is a sense of romance attached to Indian hockey. Even though the last time they were any good, Russia and US were fighting proxy wars, and being an international spy was a legitimate occupation. To say it in another way, no Indian millennial was born the last time the nation won an Olympic medal (Moscow in 1980).
They have only seen their national sport’s much-vaunted exploits through sepia-toned images in books or nostalgia-dripping, jingoism-driven TV programmes just before the Olympics. Yet, things could change in Tokyo just 12 years after they failed to qualify and eight years after they finished last. Why? Both the men’s and women’s sides have developed since Rio. While the former have a tendency to go full India from time to time, they have remained as one of the top five nations since then. Even though they are yet to beat a higher-ranked side in a knockout game at an FIH event in that time, they have what it takes to strike when it matters. At the World Cup, they drew with Belgium before giving Netherlands an almighty scare in the quarterfinals.
The men’s team also has the experience of winning two world-level medals: in 2017 (World League final) and 2018 (Champions Trophy). The most pleasing aspect, however, is their fitness. They are one of the best if yo-yo scores are anything to go by.
The women’s team are expected to not just hold their own, but also challenge when medals are handed out. Over the last 18 months, they have developed an identity, and embraced psychology and sports science to gain that one per cent over rivals. On the field, they have produced results against higher-ranked rivals. They find themselves in a difficult pool—the Netherlands, Great Britain, Germany, South Africa and Ireland—but the one thing Sjoerd Marijne has managed to do is instill belief. He has taught them not only how to dream, but also the means to achieve it. With an underdog spirit and a team that runs through brick walls for the coach, it’s now up to them to become only the second Indian team to medal at the Olympics.
Groups (only India)
Australia, Argentina, India, Spain, New Zealand, Japan
Netherlands, Germany, Great Britain, Ireland, India, South Africa
Oi Hockey Stadium
July 25 - Aug 7