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India’s Olympic Struggles Aren’t New, But It’s Making A Comeback In One Important Sport

This article is part of our Tokyo Olympics series.

UPDATE (Aug. 7, 2021, 1:30 p.m.): India won two more medals on Saturday: a gold for Neeraj Chopra in javelin, the country’s first in that event, and a bronze for Bajrang Punia in men’s freestyle 65kg wrestling. That gives India seven medals — the most it has won in a single Olympics, and three medals above what the FiveThirtyEight tracker expected.

Why do some countries flourish at the Olympics and others founder? It’s a question that’s been studied for years. In general, rich countries fare better than poor ones, healthy countries better than sick and countries well connected with roads and bridges better than those lacking basic infrastructure. Harsh geopolitical and material inequalities don’t disappear when it’s time to sprint 100 meters, shoot clay targets or parry a fencing sword — no matter what the quintessentially American belief in sports as a meritocracy may suggest.

And when the Summer Olympics roll around, the achievement gap question is invariably projected onto the performance of India: Why doesn’t it win more medals? Despite its remarkable economic growth over the past three decades and its current stature as the world’s second-most-populous country and fifth-largest economy, India is still by many accounts a poor country. Some observers, like Nobel Laureate economists Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo, point to India’s high rates of child malnutrition as possibly intertwined with its poor Olympic showing. Anirudh Krishna and Eric Haglund argued in a 2008 paper that despite its population of nearly 1.4 billion people, India’s “effective participation rate” — or the true supply of people competing in athletics — is far smaller. 

Up to the 2020 Games, India had captured a total of only 28 medals — the same that American swimmer Michael Phelps amassed all by himself — across 36 Olympics dating to 1900. Its most recent gold medal came in 2008,1 and it boasts a medal rate of just over 2 percent. Of any country with at least one medal, India has the worst population-to-medals ratio, and it has won gold medals in only two events. 

India had high hopes going into Tokyo, with the country’s largest-ever Olympic contingent. When all is said and done, the country is likely to have collected just five medals. But that’s actually better than what FiveThirtyEight’s Olympic medal tracker expected based on India’s showing in the past three Games, and it ranks second all-time2 in the country’s medal haul at one Olympics. After the national team’s overall dismal showing at the 2016 Games in Rio — where it won only two medals — both the Indian government and private companies stepped up their bankrolling of the various federations and athletes that had been chronically under-funded. It may not have paid off in an impressive medal ranking — India is still projected to finish in just 41st place — but gains were meaningful in one sport in particular.

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The men’s and women’s field hockey teams won over the hearts of exultant fans back home with their extended runs in the Olympic tournaments. Neither squad got off to an especially smooth start in Tokyo; the men were clobbered 7-1 by Australia in just their second game of the group stage, while the women lost three of their first four group games. But both teams turned the tide, as the men won their final three group matches — including a 5-3 win over host Japan that clinched their spot in the quarterfinals — and the women won their final two, capped by a 4-3 squeaker over South Africa.

Both teams lost their semifinal matches, but they both played for bronze medals. The men prevailed after digging themselves out of a 3-1 second-quarter hole against Germany; young contributors Hardik Singh and Harmanpreet Singh used penalty corners to knot the match up at 3 before veteran defender and drag-flicker Rupinder Pal Singh tucked away the penalty that proved to be the bronze-medal clincher. In their third-place match against Great Britain, the women fell behind 2-0 but then found themselves in another nail-biter after scoring three straight goals to take a lead heading into the halftime break. India would be shut out in the second half, however, as the British attack equalized early in the third quarter and converted the decisive fourth-quarter score after a barrage of penalty corners, with the final score going 4-3 for Britain — along with the bronze.

A collage of athletes on the Wheaties box.

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With only the understanding of India’s historically miserable Olympic output, you could be forgiven for not knowing its rich hockey past. While the women’s team’s best Olympic performance before this year was a fourth-place finish in 1980, it has also succeeded on the international stage, winning multiple Asia Cups, the 1982 Asian Games and the 2002 Commonwealth Games. The Indian men’s hockey team, though, might be the best dynasty you’ve never heard of. It won six straight gold medals during its “Golden Era” from 1928 to 1960, and it has the most gold medals (eight) and overall medals (12) in Olympic history. Dhyan Chand, who was widely regarded as the greatest hockey player of all time and earned his moniker “the wizard” for his deft stickwork, steered India to three of those golds. 

India’s dominance on the world stage wasn’t to last. Starting with the 1976 Montreal Games, Astroturf became hockey’s default playing surface, making the game faster, more focused on physical fitness and more prohibitively expensive for a country with few artificial fields for its players to train on. As India’s men’s hockey coach put it in a 1996 interview with The New York Times, “We thought we could still beat our rivals on the basis of superior natural skills, and we couldn’t. We didn’t adapt fast enough, and our game suffered.” India’s Golden Era would soon be over, as the men’s team won the last of its eight gold medals at the 1980 Moscow Games before receding from the Olympic stage. The slide reached its nadir when the team failed to qualify for the 2008 Beijing Games.

Fast forward to today, and not only has the men’s hockey team scaled the ranks of international hockey, but so too has the nascent women’s team. Entering the 2020 Olympics, the men’s side ranked fifth in the International Hockey Federation (FIH) rankings, while the women clocked in at ninth. One medal is a drop in the bucket to most Olympic mainstays, but India is no Olympic mainstay. 

Paradoxically, there is both a familiarity and altogether unfamiliarity to India’s hockey revival. While the country’s overall Olympic team has been either an afterthought or a laughingstock for much of its history, it was also an untouchable standard-bearer of one of the Games’ most iconic sports. As The New York Times’s Victor Mather recently put it, “It is not just that India was once the best team in the world in field hockey. It’s that India was once better at field hockey than any country was at nearly anything.” Even if for just a moment, India has finally gotten to recreate its hockey glory days — and that prestige is worth savoring.

Rani Rampal, forward and captain of the women’s team who has 134 goals to her name in international play, embodies the hardships that so many Indian athletes overcome. Growing up in Haryana, one of the most impoverished states in India, Rampal couldn’t even afford a hockey stick and suffered from malnourishment. After she fell in love with the game while watching a nearby academy practice, she had to plead with both the academy’s coach and her parents to let her join the team. 

“I wanted an escape from my life; from the electricity shortages, to the mosquitoes buzzing in our ear when we slept, from barely having two square meals to seeing our home getting flooded when it rained,” Rampal said in a recent post on Instagram.

The structural inequities that many Indians and Indian athletes face didn’t disappear when two hockey teams defied expectations in Tokyo, but new expectations have undoubtedly arisen where gloom and yearning for the past once reigned supreme. Only time will tell if the past few weeks were a mirage of misguided hopes or a harbinger of happier days.

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  1. Which Abhinav Bindra won in shooting — the country’s only gold that didn’t come in field hockey.

  2. As of noon Friday. Three Indian athletes — Neeraj Chopra in the men’s javelin throw, Aditi Ashok in women’s individual golf and Bajrang Punia in men’s wrestling — are within striking distances of medals.

Santul Nerkar was a copy editor at FiveThirtyEight.