Will India’s four-decade-long wait for that Olympic medal in Hockey end this year? Or will it be another year of toil and near misses? Let’s take a look at how the Indian hockey contingent is gearing up ahead of the Tokyo Olympic Games.
After its record eighth gold at the 1980 Moscow Games, the Indian men’s team finally has a strong enough squad to challenge the best in the world while the women’s team has an exciting outlook with a perfect mixture of youth and experience and will be hoping for a much improved performance after finishing 12th in the 2016 Rio Games.
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Men’s Hockey Team
After the lows of London 2012 and Rio 2016, the Indian men’s hockey team have the best chance to end their more than four decades of wait for that elusive Olympic medal. As far as Field Hockey goes, India has been the most successful country in the history of the Olympic Games with eight gold medals, though the last of these came way back in the 1980 Moscow Games. The 2018 Asian Games bronze medalists have been on the rise since 2013 and, having been led by Manpreet Singh in the last couple of years, have beaten the best in the world and currently rank fourth in the FIH World Rankings.
In the last five years, the Men in Blue lost consecutive Hockey Champions Trophy finals on penalties, in 2016 and 2018, both against Australia, but won the Asian Champions Trophy in 2016 and 2018. India was again victorious at the 2017 Asia Cup held in Dhaka. Their defeat to Malaysia in the semi-finals of the 2018 Asian Games was a shock in the eyes of many, as the boys were favourites to win gold at the Games. They lost on penalties to Malaysia, but in the bronze medal match against arch-rivals Pakistan came out victorious on the night – a small consolation keeping in mind their potential.
And if their recent form is anything to go by, the Indian men’s hockey team will go into the Tokyo Games as one of the strongest contenders for a medal. The Men in Blue have beaten all the top three ranked teams in the world, and their FIH Pro League results against 2016 Olympic gold medalists Argentina are a testament to their form and rise ahead of the Summer Olympics. Playing the away tie in Buenos Aires, India won the first match on penalties and then went on to thump the Rio gold medalists 3-0 in the second match. However, the postponement of FIH Pro League matches against Germany and Spain due to coronavirus has been a big setback for the Indian team.
“When the FIH Pro League matches against Germany and Spain too were postponed, we were extremely disappointed because those matches would have certainly helped in our preparations. But we understand these are really unprecedented times, and there are travel restrictions in place,” captain Manpreet has said.
Talking about the chances of bagging a medal, Manpreet adds, “We strongly believe we have the best chance to win a medal at the Olympics and this belief is keeping everyone motivated and optimistic. Our training has been planned in such a manner that we peak at the right time and also we are clocking long hours in the sun to get our bodies acclimatised to the hot conditions in Tokyo.”
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Women’s Hockey Team
After a hiatus of 36 years, the Indian women’s hockey team qualified for the Olympic Games for the first time in 2016; four years later, they have made it two in two. Just like the men’s team, after facing a sharp decline that lasted well over two decades, the Indian women’s team has been slowly building momentum over the last couple of years. In 2014, they won the bronze medal at the Asian Games and two years later won the 2016 Asian Champions Trophy in Singapore. The girls then went on to win the 2017 Asia Cup but lost in the final of the 2018 Asian Champions Trophy to hosts South Korea. While the men’s team only secured a bronze medal at the 2018 Asian Games, the women’s contingent bagged silver as they narrowly lost to gold medalist Japan.
The 16-member squad announced on 17 June has been a hotly debated one as it looks like an exciting proposition with a perfect blend of youth and experience. The squad consists of eight experienced heads who had been part of the 2016 Rio setup and eight new faces who are excited to don the Indian jersey at the Tokyo Olympics for the first time. The eight veterans have an accumulated match experience of more than one thousand matches, which will come in handy for the young guns when dealing with the pressure of performing in what is one of the biggest sporting events in the world.
The women’s team has been training at the Sports Authority of India (SAI) training centre in Bengaluru under the watchful eyes of chief coach Sjoerd Marijne. They enjoyed successful tours of Argentina and Germany in the first half of 2021, and talking about the progress of his side in the last couple of years, coach Marijne has said, “There’s a good mix of experienced players and new talent, which is excellent. We look forward to taking on the best in the world in Tokyo. This is a team with a lot of potential and drive which we hope to channelise to our best performance yet.”
The women’s team are currently ranked 9th in the world, but since the pandemic, something has clicked, with the squad brimming with belief and confidence. Though expectations of a medal may seem far-fetched at this point in time, we have seen far crazier things happen in sports and will be hoping that the girls can pull off something spectacular in their third attempt.