The medal proved elusive but the Indian women’s hockey team earned plenty of respect with a momentous fourth-place finish in the Olympic Games where golfer Aditi Ashok also stood on the cusp of history even as star wrestler Bajrang Punia disappointed, here on Friday.
Up against 2016 Games gold-medallists Great Britain in the bronze play-off, India ended 3-4 but managed to give the more fancied team quite a run for its money and in the process earning some more appreciation from the country as well as their opponents.
Rani Rampal and her gutsy teammates cried long after the final hooter had gone off but one thing was clear, history had been scripted by a team that finished last in the previous Games and from whom nobody expected anything.
“I said to the girls, ‘Listen, I can’t take away your tears. No words will help for that. We didn’t win the medal, but I think we achieved something bigger, and it’s inspiring a country and make the country proud’,” the team’s Dutch coach Sjoerd Marijne, whose four-year stint with the side also came to an end on Friday, said.
Another unexpected medal contender on the day was Aditi, a 23-year-old Bengalurean whose mother Maheshwari is her caddie at the Games. The unheralded youngster placed herself sole second on the leaderboard and in line for a medal after carding a three-under 68 in the third round.
Aditi fired five birdies and two bogeys on the day. She was three-under after picking up shots on fourth, sixth and seventh holes before bogeys on ninth and 11th pulled her back.
However, she made amends with birdies on the 15th and 17th to keep herself in the hunt.
With a storm forecast for the next two days, there is every possibility that she might just clinch the first ever Olympic medal in golf for India if she holds on or play does not happen because of weather.
The event will become a 54-hole affair if storm prevents play on Saturday and Sunday.
“I think no matter how I do this week people have heard about golf, and they continue to tune in if they have extended the golf coverage in India, because I’m in the top three or whatever,” she said.
“I think that’s good itself. People seeing golf instead of the other sports, it’s always good to get more people aware of the game.”
The same, however, could not be said of Punia, who entered the Games as an overwhelming favourite to be among the top two at least.
After just about making it to the semifinals following two close wins, the second seeded Punia was outmaneuvered by Azerbaijan’s Haji Aliev in the last-four stage, leaving him with a bronze to fight for on Saturday.
There was disappointment as usual in the athletics arena despite a creditable performance by the men’s 4x400m relay team.
Muhammed Anas Yahiya, Tom Noah Nirmal, Rajiv Arokia and Amoj Jacob combined to break the Asian record after completing the race in 3:00.25sec to finish fourth in the second heat but it was not enough to earn them the final berth.
The earlier Asian record was in the name of Qatar which had clocked 3:00.56 while winning the gold in the 2018 Asian Games.
Earlier in the day, the race walkers failed to impress with below-par performances at Sapporo.
National record holder Priyanka Goswami was among the leading pack around the halfway mark but eventually finished 17th while compatriot Bhawna Jat ended at 32nd in the women’s 20km race walk event.
In the men’s 50km event, Gurpreet Singh pulled out after the 35km mark due to cramps under hot and humid conditions.
Saturday could prove to be historic in Indian athletics when Neeraj Chopra presents his challenge in the javelin throw event.
He topped the qualifications with his very first throw and has raised hopes of doing what the likes of late Milkha Singh and P T Usha could not do despite coming very close.
Chopra’s qualification show was one of the best performances by an Indian in the Olympics, as he finished ahead of gold medal favourite and 2017 world champion Johannes Vetter of Germany.
Vetter, who had earlier said that Chopra will find it tough to beat him in the Olympics, struggled in his first two throws before crossing the automatic qualification mark with a 85.64m final throw.