M.M. Somaya on India ending 41-year wait for Olympic hockey medal

Being part of the 1980 medal-winning team, today’s win made me emotional and nostalgic because an Olympic medal is something that assures you that you have played against the best in the world.

"India winning an Olympic medal after 41 years is a very emotional moment," says Moscow Olympics gold medallist M.M. Somaya.

India winning an Olympic medal after 41 years is a very emotional moment. Even after 1980, we were working hard to clinch a medal. But none of the teams could even reach the semifinals. So, when this side reached the last four stage a couple of days ago, it was a great achievement. And today’s bronze medal win makes it more special.

Being part of the 1980 medal-winning team, today’s win made me emotional and nostalgic because an Olympic medal is something that assures you that you have played against the best in the world. The process of qualification is challenging, and the teams send their best players. So, there is no scope for trial and error in a competition like the Olympics, and keeping all the factors in mind, this victory is a vindication of what the Indian team has done over the last few years.

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What has also impressed me is that even after losing poorly to Australia in the second fixture, this team did not crumble under pressure and came back strongly to win four consecutive games. Even though the semifinal defeat against Belgium did put us back a bit, this side has shown incredible physical and mental toughness to bounce back. They are not only the fittest side but also mentally very strong. It is never easy to fight back after conceding three goals, but this side has done that and has managed to break two barriers – beating higher-ranked teams and winning an Olympic medal. Earlier, we would often struggle under pressure, but it is good to see that the players have really improved in that area. They were always in control - physically, mentally, and emotionally – and that certainly contributed to their success.

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I consider P.R. Sreejesh as one of the best goalkeepers India has had in astro-turf hockey. Yes, there have been a few occasions when he has let in a few goals that could have been saved, but that doesn’t take away the fact that he has managed to fight back in crunch situations and is one of the best goalkeepers in the world today. I also feel that this coaching team – led by Graham Reid – should be retained because they have done a wonderful job, and this reminds me of Mr Balkrishan Singh of the 1980 team. He was a very astute and a visionary coach, and similarly, Reid – by his demeanour – has been able to achieve success. How he conducts himself and quietly does his work without making a big hullabaloo is really admirable. He has been very precise in his selections, despite drawing criticisms from various quarters, and has handled the team wonderfully. That, I think, has contributed immensely to the team’s success.

While I am extremely delighted with this success, it is also important to remember that when you win, that’s not everything. What you do with the win – from an administration’s standpoint – is very crucial. It is important to figure out how you use this win to popularise hockey and make it a television sport and attract more sponsors.

One can use this win as a sort of catalyst but thinking that everything will fall in place on its own is wishful thinking. We need to do a lot of support work to ensure that it brings back the interest from participants, sponsors, and the general public, who follow the sport in India.

(As told to Shayan Acharya)

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