How 'Hockey Capital' Odisha Played a Role in India's Olympic Glory

·5 min read

As the final hooter of match number 33 at Oi Stadium in Tokyo confirmed the entry of India men’s hockey team into the semi-finals after 49 years, miles away in Bhubaneswar, Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik joined the nation in applauding the 3-1 victory.

The 44-second video was shared on his official Twitter handle, where he can be seen celebrating the team’s success. The chief minister has a special connection with the sport; it is said Patnaik had played hockey long back while he was studying at Doon school. But most recently, he is credited for popularising hockey in the country.

The recent success of both the women’s and men’s teams brought Odisha, which is also the official sponsor of the teams, back in the limelight. In fact in 2018, Odisha became the first state in the country to sponsor a sports team when it signed a Rs 150 crore deal with Hockey India. While some in the social media acknowledged the state for standing by hockey, others went slightly far-fetched crediting the state for the success of the teams at Tokyo.

Hockey – A Part of Culture

Odisha had always been a part of the rich hockey culture of the country, producing some of the finest players of India. Former captain Dilip Tirkey, defender Lazarus Barla, brothers Prabodh and Ignace Tirkey and women hockey players like Jyoti Sunita Kullu have come from the tribal belt, mainly from Sundargarh district in the western part of the state – also called the ‘nursery of hockey.’

In the tribal belts of this district, hockey is not just a sport, but a culture born from the influence of Christian missionaries who had visited the area long back. The current men's team at Tokyo has two players from Odisha – defenders Amit Rohidas and Birendra Lakra. The women’s team has Deep Grace Ekka, while Namita Toppo from the state was named as a reserve.

Despite being home to big names in both men’s and women’s hockey, the state still lacked infrastructure until recently. A sports hostel in Panposh had an astro-turf but the senior players had to often visit Kolkata for practice. The Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar which can now proudly boast of hosting the 2014 Champions Trophy, the World Hockey League and 2018 World Cup, had no hockey stadium until 2012.

Former player Dilip Tirkey and now the Chairman of Hockey Odisha Promotion Council Board, had approached CM Naveen Patnaik in 2003 with the idea of constructing a hockey stadium and promoting the sport. The CM, Tirkey says, readily agreed and asked for a detailed proposal.

“The CM had one condition then – the stadium should be the country’s best. Kalinga Stadium has lived up to the expectation,” says Dilip Tirkey.

Even as the idea of the stadium construction was formulating, two PSUs from Odisha – Mahanadi Coalfields (MCL) and Industrial Infrastructure Development Corporation (IDCO) – joined hands to own the Kalinga Lancers franchise in the now redundant Hockey India League.

Becoming the 'Hockey Capital'

The packed Kalinga Stadium, which hosted the matches, signalled the arrival of newly found fans in the state, most of whom were first time witness to a live hockey match. The crowd gave Odisha a chance to host the 2014 Champions Trophy, which again drew full attendance. The shift of hockey from national capital Delhi to the emerging ‘hockey capital’ Odisha had started back in 2014 itself.

Then Odisha went on to host World Hockey League Finals in 2017 and was announced as hosts of 2018 World Cup. In the run-up to the World Cup, the Odisha Government announced the 150 crore sponsorship deal with Hockey India. The World Cup gave the sport of hockey a lot of visuals, not just during the matches but in the build-up too. The state roped in big celebrities for the event – Oscar awardee AR Rahman composed the tournament anthem, three big names from the entertainment industry were invited for the opening ceremony while cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar and other sports personalities were present during the matches.

The visuals and the social media buzz attracted many non-hockey fans too, who started following the sport and added to the growing popularity of hockey in the state.

It was no surprise when the state was announced as the host for the 2023 World Cup, becoming the only venue in the world which will host two consecutive World Cups. This time, Rourkela in Sundargarh district will be the co-venue along with the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar. The under-construction Birsa Munda stadium in Rourkela, is set to become the biggest hockey stadium in the country, on the basis of seating.

Scouting for Local Talent

Odisha has also announced construction of synthetic turfs in all district headquarters to tap into hockey talents and nurture them. The Tata Naval Hockey High Performance Centre is working in the direction of realising this dream. However, so far the hockey playing culture has remained isolated to the tribal belts. In Bhubaneswar itself, there are very few schools that have hockey as a sport option.

While there is no denying the Odisha Government has contributed to the popularity of hockey in the country, the achievement and credit for the exemplary show at Tokyo goes solely to the players and the staff.

(Tazeen Qureshy is an independent journalist based in Bhubaneswar, Odisha. She writes on sports, development and women issues. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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