It is easy to be dismissive about the Indian women’s chances of a medal in hockey at the 2016 Rio Olympics. They are, of course, in the imposing Group B (ranked No. 13, they are the lowest-ranked team in the group) and it will be a gigantic task to make it to the quarter-finals.

After all, their overall record against rivals like Japan, Great Britain, Australia, the US and Argentina isn’t inspiring. It seems clear that if a medal is near impossible, even a top 8 finish will be an optimistic outcome for this enthusiastic bunch of young women, who have fought and won many trials just to be here.

However, it’s these very odds that the team has overcome, which makes their story interesting. It’s been 36 years since an Indian women’s team made it to the Olympics. In the 1980 Moscow Games, there were only four teams and India were one of them—incidentally, they got the invitation only because many of the top nations had decided to boycott the Games.

“The moment I landed at Rio airport, I realized that it’s now a reality—we are indeed in the Olympics," says Rani Rampal, one of the senior members of the squad. “To qualify for this event was the most memorable moment of my life, but that’s history, and we need to make it more special by winning a medal and not just be content with experiencing the Games."

“Reaching the quarter-finals is a must target for all of us," adds Sushila Chanu, captain of the team.

India started well against Japan (a 2-2 draw), but were outplayed by Great Britain (0-3). Two matches are coming up—against the US (tomorrow) and Argentina (Saturday), which will not only challenge their fitness levels, but their skills and mindset as well. (India played their third match against Australia on Wednesday; the result had not come in at the time of going to press.) “We have to get seven points to get into the quarter-finals and we are hopeful of upsetting some big teams," says C.R. Kumar, coach of the Indian team.

Regardless of the results in the Olympics, however, many people have already hailed the achievement of making it to Rio as a turning point for the game in India, where fans have traditionally focused on men’s hockey.

“A lot has changed since my own niece, Neha Singh, played for the 1998 silver medal-winning Asian Games team," says former India captain Ashok Dhyan Chand. “The movie Chak De! India was the real catalyst since a lot of girls from different parts of India have started playing after being influenced by the film."

Most of the players had to win a battle at home first—against their parents and relatives—before they could pick up a hockey stick. “My parents didn’t want me to play hockey as our relatives put a lot of pressure on them by arguing that it would bring a bad name. Now, the same critics are sending their daughters and sisters to pursue a career in hockey," smiles Rampal.

“In Manipur, I was told that if I play the game, it will only lead to broken legs and hands. But the same people now play music from the film Chak De! India when we are around," says Chanu.

India were trailing 0-2 at half-time in the first game against Japan before they equalized in the second half in a dramatic turnaround. “Oh, there were no filmi dialogues," says Kumar, grinning as he explains what brought about the change. “I just asked them to forget the past and concentrate on the next 30 minutes."

“Real life is different from reel. In reality, it is a lot harder. I am not saying that it’s impossible to beat higher-ranked teams, but for that we have to work even harder," says Rampal.

Despite all the optimism, the ground reality back home isn’t rosy, the players say. The lack of infrastructure in schools continues to be a big hindrance. More importantly, the game is yet to catch on in big cities and among the urban elite.

“This is a huge platform. Young children will watch them on TV and the media coverage will help bring in new talent," says Kumar, who has had a coaching stint in Malaysia in the past.

Much can change within a fortnight. Even a bronze medal in Rio would transform the profile of this game—it would be as big as the men’s team securing a medal after a gap of 36 years.

“So many have done so much for us and they don’t expect anything in return except a good show. Things are changing in terms of gender equality, but to earn the same kind of respect and recognition, we need to do well here. I am sure that if we do that, our lives will change forever," says Rampal.

Vimal Kumar is the author of Sachin: Cricketer Of The Century and The Cricket Fanatic’s Essential Guide.

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