Tokyo Olympics: India’s Hockey Win Holds Key Lesson For Women’s Sport
The biggest reason why India’s remotest pin codes continue to churn out world-class sportswomen despite all odds. By Priya Ramani.
Pritam Rani Siwach’s phone has been ringing off the hook since the Indian women’s hockey team knocked out world number 2 Australia to make it to the Olympic semi-final for the first time ever. Midway through our conversation, she puts me on hold to answer the local MLA’s call. When she returns a few minutes later, I ask her what he wanted. “He said I’ll come to your hockey ground to distribute laddoos,” she says. “I told him laddoos are great but please also clear my long-pending request for astroturf.”
In India, a hockey legend can be born when a grandmother borrows a hockey stick so her insistent granddaughter can start playing the game. Years later, Siwach led the Indian team to win a silver at the 1998 Asian Games, agreed to marry a fellow hockey player only after he assured her she wouldn’t have to stop playing, had a child and, in 2002, left her seven-month-old at home and returned to captain India to a gold in the 2002 Commonwealth Games. She continued playing after her second child was born.
For nearly two decades now, the couple has run a free hockey academy in Sonepat, Haryana. Academy may sound fancy for a grassy field and a basic two-room structure (a changing room and a makeshift gym) with a toilet and water cooler, but three of the women on India’s winning Olympic team have trained here. Siwach is also a coach for the Indian Railways which has 13 women hockey players on the national team. At present, 120 girls train at her academy where she has a simple, one-point agenda: Other girls shouldn’t have to struggle (she uses the more powerful word sangharsh) like she did.
Former India hockey captain Pritam Rani Siwach as player and coach. (Photographs: Pritam Rani Siwach)
Grassroots coaches like Siwach, or those at the famous Shahabad Hockey Academy where captain Rani Rampal learned everything about hockey starting age six, are the biggest reason India’s remotest pin codes continue to churn out world-class sportswomen despite all the odds stacked against them by the uncaring state and deep-rooted patriarchy. Siwach, and others like her, allow young Indians with mind-numbing lives a chance to dream—and live out—their impossible dreams.
The veteran hockey player happily shares stories about her three Olympic ‘babies’. Before Neha Goyal joined Siwach’s academy, the pre-teen used to work with her mother at the nearby cycle factory straightening spokes. Sharmila’s father is a farmer in Hisar. Her grandfather deposited her with Siwach six years ago and said look after her, teach her hockey, help her make something of her life. About Sharmila, Indian coach, Sjoerd Marijne told The Bridge, “She is a young player and she plays without any fear. She plays with a lot of joy.”
India hockey midfielder Neha Goyal, in the Olympics quarterfinal against Australia, in Tokyo, on Aug. 2, 2021. (Photograph: Hockey India)
Siwach’s third protege Nisha Warsi, whose father worked in a sari showroom until a stroke left him paralysed, also comes from an impoverished family. Like many, Warsi picked hockey because it is a relatively inexpensive game—all you need to start is a stick.
Rampal, the undernourished child of a domestic worker and a cart-puller, famously began playing with a broken hockey stick she found on a field. While a large part of India’s team is from Haryana, it also has two representatives from Naxal strongholds in Jharkhand—mid-fielder Salima Tete and defender Nikki Pradhan.
India defender Nikki Pradhan lifts her hockey stick to celebrate the quarterfinal win over Australia, at the Olympic Games, in Tokyo, on Aug. 2, 2021. (Photograph: Hockey India)
Salima Tete described to Mint Lounge how she used to play with wood sticks on a makeshift ground. “My friends and I would remove the stones ourselves, try to make the ground as smooth as possible and mark temporary goalposts,” she said.
Often, these sportswomen are each other’s role models (see here and here). For half the team, this is their second Olympics. So the daughter of a tribal farmer, Deep Grace Ekka from Lulkidihi-Bahamnibahal in Orissa is a double Olympian. And when Mizo forward Lalremsiami lost her father in the middle of an Olympic qualifier competition, she managed her grief and continued playing to honour his memory. India’s sports teams brim with startling stories like these.
Unlike in Bollywood representations of hockey, Indian women aren't just driven by their hunger to win. They are technical goddesses, none more than their captain Rampal. Read Sharda Ugra’s brilliant analysis of her game and how she’s worked to perfect it.
India hockey captain Rani Rampal, during the quarterfinal against Australia, at the Tokyo Olympics, on Aug. 2, 2021. (Photograph: Hockey India)
If Indian sports struggles it is only because we don’t care enough to invest at the grassroots. Even through the pandemic, Siwach kept her academy running, training smaller groups of girls at different times of day. “We have to improve things when the sapling is sprouting,” she says. “How can you expect better performances from our athletes at a later stage when you don’t invest in their growth?”
Until then she’ll doggedly keep teaching her girls to imbibe her “gussewali” (angry), “hyper” spirit. I want them to think the same spirited thought I did on the field: “How dare you try to take the ball from me?”
Priya Ramani is a Bengaluru-based journalist and is on the editorial board of Article-14.com.
The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.