When the umpire blew the final whistle, signalling India’s victory over Germany and a bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics, Manpreet Singh felt stunned. The Indian hockey captain didn’t know how to celebrate, so he just sat down and screamed. Soon his teammates gathered around, with one consistent refrain: “We did it.”
This was India’s first Olympic medal in 41 years in hockey, a sport that the country had once dominated. None of the 2021 team’s players were born when the last medal came in Moscow in 1980, which was the country’s eighth gold in hockey. But this proud heritage meant nothing on 2 August when India faced Germany. With so much at stake, the Indian team had to battle till the dying moments of the game.
Germany led 3-1 with five minutes to go in the second quarter before India spectacularly countered with four goals. Germany pushed in one more with 12 minutes remaining and earned a penalty corner that threatened an equaliser with seconds left on the clock. But the Indian team held on to its slender lead, and emerged victorious.
“When we play, there is no time to think,” says Singh, who is also the first Indian to win the FIH (International Hockey Federation) player of the year award in 2019. “People think of those last six seconds as when their hearts beat really fast. My relatives said they couldn’t see the match in those last six seconds. But for us players, we just wanted to defend. We have done it for so long, in training, that we believed we could hold on. We ran with that belief because we had no time to think.”
He says what set this team apart from earlier Olympics squads—Singh was a member of the London 2012 and the Rio 2016 teams—is the current players’ strong mindset. Nobody gave up, even when it appeared like the team was done and out at 1-3 down. “Even till the last minute, the team’s junior players would come to me and say we will win this. I liked that there was no negativity,” says the 29-year-old who has been playing for India since 2011.
It was heart-breaking for the players to lose 2-5 to Belgium in the semi-final, Singh says. A place in the final would have assured the team of a medal. But the third place match against Germany would still give them only a 50-50 chance of winning a medal. “We discussed our sacrifices before that match, how we practiced during lockdown etc. We realised that if we don’t play well in those last 60 minutes of the tournament, we will regret it all our life. We would constantly wonder: Should I have dived then to save the goal? Should I have chased down that ball? Instead, we said, let’s give it our all in those 60 minutes.”
India started its hockey campaign in Tokyo with a 3-2 win over New Zealand, but a 1-7 loss to Australia posed serious early doubts over the team’s ability. The team bounced back, beating Spain 3-0, Argentina 3-1, Japan 5-3 and Great Britain 3-1 to make it to the semi-finals. “When we lost (to Australia), we were disappointed, also because the margin was big. We thought we would have a close match. We had beaten them in Bhubaneshwar before. (After the match) We chased the data, analysed it to realise that we had not done as bad (as the score suggests). But it was a wake-up call—we had to get better and not go back home,” says Singh.
He refuses to single out any particular player for having a large impact in the team’s excellent run of results at the Games. The whole team was the hero at Tokyo, he says, jokingly referring to coach Graham Reid as its gunda (toughie).
Singh has been India’s captain since 2017, and he credits the players’ fitness to the team’s scientific advisor Robin Arkell. When the team trained in Bengaluru in the lead up to Tokyo, the sessions were held in the afternoons because the weather in Tokyo was expected to be humid. “In hockey, fitness will allow you to survive till the end of the tournament,” says Singh.
He says that 19 of the team’s players finished the yo-yo test prior to the Olympics. It’s a method of evaluating aerobic fitness and endurance. It was reported in the media earlier this year that about seven Indian players—including Singh—had touched the highest levels of over 23. The Indian team’s target for goalkeepers was 20, while for outfield players the target was between 22-23.
The team’s next big challenges will come at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham next year, followed by the Hangzhou Asian Games, also in 2022. And then there’s the Paris Olympics in 2024. Singh expects the Olympic bronze to give the team added confidence, rather than bogging it down with expectations. Under Singh’s captaincy, India has earlier won the 2018 Asian Games bronze medal and silver in the 2018 Champions Trophy.
Felicitations and celebratory events to mark the Olympics bronze continue, but the players are now preparing to head back to camp. Singh says that amongst all the congratulatory messages he received, his favourite was from his wife Illi who lives in Malaysia. He could not speak to his mother when he called her because she just could not stop crying. “My father is not there to see the medal,” Singh says, “but mom said he would be proud of me.”
Arun Janardhan is a Mumbai-based journalist who covers sports, business leaders and lifestyle.