India ‘dances’ with joy after hockey team ends four-decade medal drought

India celebrated on Thursday over a bronze medal, after the most successful nation in men’s Olympic hockey claimed their first podium finish in 41 years.

A comeback 5-4 win over Germany in Tokyo snared third place in the tournament and ended decades of agonising over repeat failures since they won the last of their eight Olympic titles in Moscow in 1980.

Families of the Indian team danced in the streets in Punjab state, waving hockey sticks in the air after the win. Other fans waved the Indian flag as they rushed out of their houses.

Ten of the 18-man squad — including double goalscorer Simranjeet Singh — come from Punjab, where the state government said each would get a $135,000 bonus.

“The whole nation is dancing,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi told captain Manpreet Singh and coach Graham Reid in a celebratory call to the team. He hailed the win as “historic”.

Hockey has fallen behind cricket in the popularity and glamour stakes in India. Despite the country’s pedigree in the sport, none of the team were born the last time India won a medal.

Even cricket legends such as Gautam Gambhir were quick to praise the team. And goalkeeper Parattu Raveendran Sreejesh echoed Modi’s hopes that the result would inspire a new generation to take up hockey.

“It’s a rebirth. That’s it. It’s been 41 years,” he said.

“In 1980 we won the last medal and after that, nothing. This gives a boost and gives energy to the youngsters to pick up hockey and play this game. This is a beautiful game.”

India came back from 3-1 down and went into the final quarter leading 5-3, before a fourth German goal set up a tense finale.

Sreejesh pulled off a crucial save in the dying seconds as Germany threw everything at India, sinking to his knees when the match finished.

Sreejesh said before the Games that India would be playing in memory of medal-winning hockey heroes who lost their lives in the coronavirus pandemic.

Two members of India’s 1980 gold medal team, Ravindra Pal Singh and Maharaj Krishan Kaushik, died from Covid-19 on the same day in May.

Keshav Datt, who was in winning teams in 1948 and 1952, died in July from natural causes.

India’s women’s team has enjoyed their best ever Olympics and will play Britain for bronze on Friday after eliminating title favourites Australia in the quarter-finals.

But their success has been tainted by abuse targeting the family of player Vandana Katariya, who is from the lower-caste Dalit community that has faced generations of discrimination.

The Times of India newspaper said that hours after the women’s team lost to Argentina in Wednesday’s semi-final,  upper-caste men abused Katariya’s family in Uttarakhand state.

Katariaya’s brother said the men shouted that the defeat was because “there were too many Dalits” in the team, according to the report.

India’s 200-million Dalits, once known as the “untouchables”, regularly complain of discrimination and often deadly abuse.

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