Thirteen years after failing to even qualify for the Games, an Indian hockey team stood at the podium, something that had become a mythical tale of a bygone era for an entire generation.
It was India’s 12th Olympic hockey medal but the one that came after a gap of 41 years. It was India’s fifth medal of the ongoing Games and perhaps the one which evoked the most emotional response.
To put it in context, the last time India won a hockey medal at the Olympics, the USSR still existed.
On Thursday morning, Manpreet Singh and his men outran, outwitted, outpaced and to an extent outplayed an aggressive German team 5-4 to shed the baggage of failures and announce the “rebirth” of Indian hockey as the generation before this one knew it.
“…we didn’t give up. We kept fighting back,” said an overwhelmed Manpreet after the win which ensured that his and the rest of his teammates’ names would be written in golden words in the history of Indian hockey.
In a cricket-mad India, hockey has always been a sentimental sport, making the layman nostalgic about a glorious past, which is dotted with eight Olympic gold medals.
And having ruefully seen its decline in the past several years, it was only fair that the nation celebrated with gusto.
Dahiya added to this celebration with a silver medal in the men’s 57kg division.
He lost the final to reigning world champion Zavur Uguev of Russian Olympic Committee to sign off with a silver, which was only the second ever by an Indian wrestler.
There was also plenty of good news coming in from the golf course where Aditi Ashok put herself in contention for a podium finnish with a flawless five-under 66 in the second round that left her tied second at the end of the day’s play.
But there were plenty of disappointments too, the biggest one being star wrestler Vinesh Phogat.
After a good win in the opening round, she lost to Belarus’ Vanesa Kaladzinskaya in the quarterfinals. Her medal hopes were dashed when Kaladzinskaya failed to make the finals.
The 19-year-old Deepak Punia (86kg) came close to a bronze medal but conceded the winning lead to San Marino’s Myles Nazem Amine with just a few seconds left in the bout.
But nothing could dampen the euphoria of a hockey medal, the sentimental favourite of a cricket-mad country.
Simranjeet Singh (17th, 34th minutes) scored a brace, while Hardik Singh (27th), Harmanpreet Singh (29th) and Rupinder Pal Singh (31st) also sounded the board to immortalise themselves and the team.
“Today when we won it, this gives a boost and gives energy to the youngsters to pick up hockey, play this game,” said 35-year-old veteran custodian PR Sreejesh, quite literally the wall that protected India’s citadel.
“This is a beautiful game. Now we are giving a reason for them to pick up hockey, play the game.”
Away from the spotlight, India’s race walkers endured an expectedly ordinary outing.
National record holder Sandeep Kumar was going strong at second position till near the halfway mark but he faded to finish 23rd with a below-par timing.
The 35-year-old Kumar crossed the finish line in 1 hour 25 minute and 7 seconds, well outside his national record time of 1:20:16 which he had clocked in February to qualify for the Olympics during the National Open Race Walk Championships in Ranchi.
His two other compatriots, Rahul Rohilla (1:32:06) and KT Irfan (1:34:41) brought up the rear at 47th and 51st with disappointing performances under hot and humid conditions.
On Friday, the Indian women’s hockey team would look to emulate their men counterparts when it takes on Great Britain in the bronze medal playoff.
Rani Rampal and her gutsy teammates have already exceeded all expectations by getting this far but within touching distance of their own maiden Olympic medal, they would hope to raise the bar one last time at the Games.
On the wrestling mat, all eyes will be on Bajrang Punia when he opens his campaign in the 65kg category. The celebrated grappler is a top medal contender for the country.
Among the women, Seema Bisla (50kg) will stake her claim for a podium finish.