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Tears in Tokyo as India lose, but cheers for the larger game they have won

There were no yells today. Just silent sobs.

The Indian women’s hockey team had never ever got this far before. Only a handful had even expected them to get so far, if at all. Even fewer had backed them during the long years of struggle that preceded it. But they had, and now it was just too much to take. They had touched Olympic immortality, and then seen it slip through their fingers.

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Just like they had from day 1 in Tokyo, they had kept on keeping on in a rollercoaster match. Two-nil down against Great Britain, the reigning Olympic champions, they came back into the game on the back of a stunning three-goals-in-four-minutes spell in the second quarter. Gurjit Kaur had thundered in two impossibly powerful drag-flicks. Vandana Katariya had done what Vandana Katariya has done for ages, ghost in behind a marker, pounce on a loose ball and glance it in. They had held that 3-2 lead for only six minutes. It must have simultaneously felt like six years and six seconds.

For six minutes, they dreamed. India dreamt with them.

Then Hollie Pearne-Webb smashed a flick into the Indian goal. Parity. Thirteen minutes after that, Grace Baldson made it four.

The dreams collapsed around them, as they did. When the hooter went for one last time in Tokyo, the Indian players sank onto the pitch. Savita Punia, monstrous throughout, wept and wept and wept as the final whistle blew. Somewhere further up the expanse of blue, Rani Rampal was on her knees. Beside her Gurjit too. The veterans, fighting hard — against their families, against an apathetic society — to stay on the pitch and keep doing what they so dearly love. It wasn’t just this defeat in isolation.

It was what they believed a victory could have meant. A medal would have galvanised the game back home. In a society that craves success, it might just have been enough to break a few more shackles for half the population. These 16 women had borne the weight of it all with such dignity for so long, and now it was crushing them.

Yet what they have done throughout this tournament — and even in this defeat — is lift a nation with them. They were rarely out-played, and never ever out-fought. They worked hard, and constantly kept at it. They expressed themselves and never shrank away when the going got tough.

You could see it in every one of them in this match —

Salima Tete, the team’s designated first-rusher while defending penalty corners, threw herself on the line every single time. She also displayed bravery of another kind — trusting her skill, dribbling her way out of the GB press time and time again, releasing pressure, and starting attacks.

Navneet Kaur and Lalremsiami kept attacking the wings, charging into the D, trying to force chances, to win a PC so that Gurjit could stride forward with that mighty stick.

Savita Punia had contorted herself into incredible shapes to keep India in the game.

Rani Rampal, quiet on the ball by her high standards, never stopped running off it.

Vandana, so nearly the match winner, would have spent the past day reading about, and hearing about, reports of how casteist slurs had been hurled on her family after that semifinal defeat. She had let none of that get to her. She had scored, and she had been a constant menace in the GB circle. If that’s not courage…

Every athlete in blue put her all out there. As Rudyard Kipling so famously wrote, let us treat triumph and disaster as the imposters they are. This here — this fight, this character, this courage — is what truly matters. They have so many more chapters to write, but they already have an indelible legacy laid out behind them. They have given voice where previously there was none.

They have shown, as their coach Sjoerd Marijne tweeted after the game, that “as long as you work hard and believe” dreams can come true. Hell, they have shown that girls, just as boys do, have the right to dream.

Their Olympics may have ended with defeat on the pitch, but off it… it was an astonishing victory.

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