Odisha’s Role in Indian Hockey’s Turnaround
The remarkable turnaround performance of the Indian hockey teams in the Tokyo Olympics 2020 has rekindled the passion for the national sport. However, the build of this euphoria started long before the Olympics. The state of the national games was in doldrums, and in a state of hibernation when Odisha’s Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik, took an interest in reviving and giving the game a much-needed thrust to make India into a champion team as was four decades ago.
Flashback to 2018. The much tainted Sahara Group was forced to end its sponsorship to Hockey India, which it had contracted to extend till 2021. In the cricket obsessed nation, there were few takers for the sponsorship. It was at this juncture that the Odisha government took over the mantle of sponsoring both the formats of the national hockey teams at the junior and senior levels for the next five years. This was the first time that a state government had come in to sponsor a national sporting team. It was a life saving decision for Indian hockey.
Earlier, the Odisha government had sponsored the Kalinga Lancers Club which had won in the Hockey India League of 2017. A year later, in December 2018, the State hosted the Hockey World League in at the Bhubaneswar’s Kalinga Stadium. The Stadium was converted into a world class facility in record time. The following year, the Naveen Patnaik-led government also hosted FIH Men’s Series Finals, the Olympic Hockey Qualifiers 2019 and even the FIH Pro League in 2020. In his own words, Naveen Patnaik who played hockey during his school days had quipped “Hockey in Odisha is more than a sport; it is a way of life especially in our tribal regions, where children learn to walk with hockey sticks. No wonder Odisha has produced India’s finest hockey talent.”
The seriousness of Naveen Patnaik for the game was evident when he nominated Dilip Tirkey – a celebrated captain of the Indian hockey team to the Rajya Sabha from his party, Biju Janata Dal. All these moves accorded recognition to hockey and importance to hockey players. These measures make Odisha a vital contributor to India’s hockey force, at par or even more than Punjab and Jharkhand.
The Odisha government has meanwhile started work on one of the biggest hockey stadiums in the country, with a seating capacity of 20,000. Rourkela’s Birsa Munda International Hockey Stadium, located in Sundargarh district will host the 2023 Men’s Hockey World Cup.The decision of the International Hockey Federation to confer the FIH President’s Award on Patnaik in 2019 and on his Private Secretary V.K. Pandian in 2021 is indicative of the reciprocity and recognition by the body.
In the March 2021 report submitted by the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Education, Youth and Sports to both houses of parliament, there were several references to Odisha’s model for development of sports. In the Demands for Grants of the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports recommended, “23 (SAI) Sports Authority of India National Centres of Excellence (NCOEs) in 14 priority and 10 other sports disciplines should be upgraded to High-Performance Centres on the model developed in the State of Odisha.”
While hockey playing culture has remained isolated to the tribal belts of the State, talent scouting has begun all over the state. Massive sports infrastructure development is happening. Notably, the vice-captains of both the men’s and women’s teams at Tokyo were from Odisha. Two players each, in both teams were from Sundargarh district. On August 3, 2021, two days after both the Indian hockey teams entered the semis; the Patnaik government issued full page advertisements in leading Odia dailies. “Thirty Eight Champions Created History in the Hockey Field; 130 crore Indians are Justly Proud; Indian Men and Women’s Hockey Teams Have Reached the Semifinals of the Tokyo Olympics; Congratulations and Best Wishes to the Team India; Odisha is Proud Today to Be a Partner in this Glorious Campaign,” the ad said in Odia. For Naveen Patnaik, the Indian hockey team’s performance at the Olympics is historic. It was his government which had thrown its weight behind the revival of the sport in the country. For this, he and his government got due accolades both from the players, the centre and the citizens who love the game.