Bronze, gold, bronze. Great Britain’s women made history by getting some metal round their necks for a third straight Olympic Games – take note, men – thanks to Grace Balsdon’s decisive penalty corner strike to win a thrilling, helter-skelter bronze medal final against India.
Who says nobody cares about losers’ finals? This was a pulsating match, Britain racing into a 2-0 lead before India hit back with three goals in four minutes, only for the deposed champions to drag themselves off the canvas in the second half and eventually prevail 4-3. It was a triumph of resilience as much as anything else and also meant they made history as the first British Olympic hockey team, male or female, to win a medal at three consecutive Games. These girls can.
The match was played in searing heat and in the third quarter Olympic hockey history was also made when the first mid-quarter drinks break took place as the pitch-side temperature reached 42C. It begged the question: why were the players being put through this?
The women’s football gold medal match had also been scheduled to begin on the same brutally hot Tokyo morning, 30 minutes after this hockey bronze final. But after some pressure the football was switched to the slightly cooler evening. It seems reasonable to think this match could also have been moved to sundown as an appetiser to the Netherlands-Argentina main event. Pushback at 2.30am in London and 7am in Mumbai doesn’t do hockey’s exposure to the TV masses any favours either.
But if hockey will forever be a poor relation to football in the harsh world of headlines and sponsorship, and a bronze medal match in any sport is always the bridesmaid, there was no mistaking the desire of Great Britain to go home with a medal.
From pushback it was a wave of red attacking India, whose goalkeeper Savita was forced into two excellent saves in the first quarter as GB enjoyed the lion’s share of possession. Thirty seconds into the second quarter Britain made the breakthrough. Ellie Rayer burst down the right and dribbled her way to the byline, then flashed a dangerous ball across the face of goal which was deflected into the net by an Indian stick.
Ten minutes later it was 2-0, a free-flowing move down the right finished in some style by Sarah Robertson and Britain looked in total command. But India weren’t reading the script and the match was turned on its head in an astonishing four-minute episode in which they scored three goals.
First, Gurjit Kaur swept past Maddie Hinch in Britain’s goal from a penalty corner. A minute later she repeated the trick, a superbly precise penalty corner drag-flick levelling the match. India’s tails were up and moments later Sharmila Devi was clean through but Hinch did enough to put her off.
India weren’t done yet and, incredibly, scored a third when Vandana Katariya flicked home in a goalmouth scramble with Britain reeling on the ropes. Half-time couldn’t come soon enough.
The break gave Britain time to clear their heads and they set off in the second half like a team possessed. Within five minutes the match was level at 3-3 when the captain Hollie Pearne-Webb fired high into Savita’s net.
Britain turned the screw in the searing heat and they took back the lead three minutes into the final quarter when India were a player down to a yellow card, Balsdon’s clinical penalty corner strike ricocheting off the backboard to cheers from the British contingent in the stadium.
From there, it was game management all the way to the hooter and a hard-fought medal. If the future is always going to be shaded orange in women’s hockey given Dutch domination, the future for GB feels pretty bright too after a tournament in which only the Netherlands stood head and shoulders above them.