The Indian hockey team with the Women’s Asian Champions Trophy in Ranchi, November 6, 2023
VICTORY IN DEFEAT. Yes, it sounds a cliché but if there was ever a truth to this saying, the result against England, 3-4, after the hardest toil in an Olympic semi-final in 2021 in Tokyo, was the clincher. None of us who were there watching and covering the semi-final had soaked it in yet. India’s Olympic campaign had hit a roadblock and the team had failed to make the final despite their very best effort. And the girls, understandably, were inconsolable. It was part of the job to go to the mixed zone to try and get in a word with the players. Not that I had questions to ask. The entire Indian men’s team was giving the girls a rousing ovation from the stands and most of us had tears flowing. Sport appears cruel on occasions and this was one such. I have watched sport for years to know you will lose more than you will win and India had exceeded expectations in Tokyo. And yet, it was a tough pill to swallow. Just as the girls started walking to the mixed zone, I took my position behind the barricades. The mixed zone was set up in a manner that the team had to walk through the area to go to the changing rooms. In the process, they were expected to have a word with the media. I was keen to get in a word with the captain, Rani Rampal. When she finally came in front of me, her expression said it all. There was a certain numbness about it. A deep sense of helplessness, which is difficult to express in words. None of us could speak for 15-20 seconds and yet, we had said a lot to each other. In those few seconds, we wanted to break the Covid norms, which were all very rigidly followed, rush to Rampal, and give her a hug. She looked despondent. Sweat still dripping from her tired face, the match shirt wet from all the effort, Rampal wasn’t really there. As part of the protocol, she had to come to the mixed zone. But no protocol could help her bind her emotions together. For five years, she had nurtured the dream of standing on the Olympic podium and seeing the Tricolour go up. And here she was as close to her dream as she could possibly get. The team had failed to make the podium and the pain was unbearable.
Sport always offers a second chance. The girls had another opportunity to get closer to their Olympic dream in China at the Asian Games and earn direct qualification. Yet again, they lost in the semi-final and eventually won bronze. With the men winning gold, questions were asked. Are the girls as good? Can they go on and make it to the Olympics? Can Vandana Katariya, Savita, and the team give themselves another chance at redemption?
The Women’s Asian Champions Trophy in Ranchi was supposed to provide us with a few answers. Could they step up under pressure is what we wanted to see. And they did. In style. Winning every game they played, the girls went on to lift the title beating Japan 4-0 in the final.
Sport, I have argued, is that unique platform, which forces performers to fail in full public view. In every other sphere, failure is an acutely personal experience. Sport, however, is different. The loss in China was watched by fans from all over and it was a recorded fact. But again, that’s where sport redeems itself. It is the only platform that allows players the opportunity to come back and win in public. With the help of your team and support unit, you can recuperate and come back and prove to the world who you are and what you are made of. In sum, redeem yourself in full public gaze and make a difference.
That’s what we wanted the girls to do. Take a lesson out of Tokyo and Hangzhou and emerge stronger. Make winning a habit and inspire thousands to play the sport. With long-term support coming their way from the Government of Odisha, facilities aren’t a problem anymore. It is now all about hard work and scientific training. About the will to dig deep and find new resolve.
Tokyo has laid the foundation and as Savita Punia states, “has earned the sport respectability. Before the Olympics, it was like okay she is a hockey player and plays for India. No one recognised us as individual stars. We were just hockey players. Now, it is not the same. Now, if I go to a mall, for example, or at the airport, people recognise me as Savita Punia. Some even come and ask for selfies and autographs. It feels good when people give you the respect as a player. We are celebrated all over social media. Our tweets [posts on X] are liked by thousands and we finally have agency as sportspeople. It feels [like] we have been able to make a difference to the country and to our fans. But then the journey isn’t over. The Olympic medal needs to be won. That’s the ultimate dream.”
The women’s Asian champions trophy in Ranchi was supposed to provide us with a few answers. Could they step up under pressure is what we wanted to see. And they did. In style. Winning every game they played, the girls went on to lift the title beating japan 4-0 in the final
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The conversation with Savita was instructive. Not only is she a senior player, but also a leader in that changing room. She has captained India and knows the importance of keeping the flock together. She also knows that Paris 2024 is the ultimate goal. “It has to be the ultimate aim,” she said when I asked her. “We play a sport to win at the biggest stage. Only we know how close we were in Tokyo. You can’t let it go now. I will leave the sport only after we finish on the podium in 2024,” said Savita.
It is possible for all the work that is going on backstage. Indian hockey is now run by professionals and the results have started to show. “In our case, the presence of our current coach, Janneke Schopman, was the biggest positive in Tokyo. The award that I won is more for her than anyone else. Not only was she a great player, but she was also a huge presence in the dressing room. In Tokyo, she would ensure I trained well ahead of every match. She would warm up with me and get me ready for each game. Ahead of the Australia match, for example, the training was different. To see her spend so much time with me and work as hard as she did, left me in awe. I had to do it for her. We were a team in the real sense. These are things that bring about a kind of team bonding, that you need to experience firsthand,” said Savita.
It is this bonding that came to the fore in Tokyo when Vandana Katariya, one of the success stories of the Olympics and the first to play 300 games for India, was attacked back home by bigots because of her background. Katariya and her family, who are residents of Roshnabad, faced serious harassment after India’s defeat to Argentina. Some vandals danced in front of her house and hurled abuse attributing the loss to her low caste background. Such a vulgar attack needed a strong response and that’s what we witnessed. The entire country got behind Vandana and her family and when her brother filed a police complaint against the perpetrators, they received widespread support.
At the recently concluded Asian Champions Trophy in Ranchi, Vandana was felicitated for completing 300 games and perhaps it was destined that she would score the last and final goal. That’s sport. That’s redemption. Only we want it to happen again in Paris. For the girls. And for India.