There has been a lot of buzz about the Odisha model after India's exploits in hockey at the Tokyo Olympics. Everyone is talking about the financial sponsorship that the state government accorded to Hockey India, which runs the game in the country, but not many know about Odisha's love for hockey and how it started.
Hockey India and Sahara, the then-sponsors of the Indian team, parted ways in January 2017. This left Hockey India without a sponsor, but in a first, the government of Odisha, led by chief minister Naveen Patnaik, came forward to support a sport that had lost its glory.
Odisha’s love for hockey started way back in 2014 when it became the first state to have a team in the Hockey India League. The outfit eventually went on to win the title in 2017. From hosting major international tournaments to producing world-class players, Odisha has done it all.
The state boasts big names in the sport, such as three-time Olympian Dilip Tirkey and current vice-captain of the men's team Birendra Lakra, to name a few. At the Tokyo Olympics, the Indian men's and women's teams had four players from the state. Deep Grace Ekka was vice-captain of the women’s team.
Many news reports have emerged detailing how the state government helped Indian hockey with its sponsorship, thus paving the way for the recent stellar results of the national teams. But not many know what Odisha has done behind the scenes to popularize the game in the state.
Its grassroots program is one of the key reasons for the unending supply of world-class hockey players from the state. We take a look at the steps the state has adopted to keep alive the glory of hockey.
AstroTurfs in all 17 blocks of Sundargarh district
Just before the World Cup in 2018, Naveen Patnaik announced the laying of AstroTurf pitches in all 17 blocks of Sundargarh. Until then, there were only four AstroTurfs in the district. This provided more opportunities for budding players to play on the designated hockey surface.
Odisha will also be hosting the 2023 World Cup, with matches to be played in Rourkela and Bhubaneswar, the state capital.
Speaking about the 2023 tournament, Sydney 2000 Olympian Lazarus Barla, who has taken stock of the situation in Rourkela, said:
“This tournament is a tribute to the people of Sundargarh, who have loved hockey all throughout their life. The biggest hockey stadium that is going to be constructed here in Rourkela will inspire more young kids to take up hockey as a sport.”
For the people of Odisha, hockey is a way of life
The love that the people of Odisha have for hockey is one of the major reasons for the state government's enormous backing for the sport.
For the people of Sundargarh and the entire tribal belt in Odisha, hockey isn’t just a game, it’s an emotion. You would hardly find a family that doesn’t have hockey players.
According to Rahul Ekka, a national-level player and resident of Sundargarh:
“Everyone in Sundargarh plays hockey. Every household has at least one player irrespective of whatever job they do.”
The century-old 'khasi' tournaments
We have tournaments all over India where winners are either awarded cash prizes or trophies. But this isn't the case in Sundargarh.
Here, people play a unique tournament, where the winning team is awarded a 'khasi'. In Odia, khasi means goat. Yes, a goat! Not only goats, but people here also play for chicken and eggs.
“For us, what matters is that we play hockey. We really don’t want any cash prizes for hockey. This tradition has been going on for many years and we want to keep it alive,” says 52-year old Ranjan Kujur, who still plays in the khasi tournament.
Needless to say, all the hockey greats and Olympians that Odisha has produced, including Olympic medalists Birendra Lakra and Amit Rohidas, are from Sundargarh and have played many khasi tournaments in their younger days.
"Khasi tournaments are where we learn our hockey. The kind of exposure and learning that this tournament gives can’t be found in any other tournament. After all, the love of people for each other in our area is what binds us to play hockey daily. People here can't live without playing hockey," says Dilip K Sa, a national-level goalkeeper from Sundargarh district.
Odisha’s rich haul at national championships
Since the inception of the Hockey India national championships, Odisha has dominated the sub-junior and junior levels. It also finished third at the 2016 Senior National Championships where top teams like Railways, PSPB and Air India competed.
Junior Indian hockey camps have always had major representation from Odisha and continue to do so. Currently, there are six players from the state in the junior national camp and four in the women’s division.
According to state sports minister Tusharkanti Behera:
“The Odisha Government has also left no stone unturned to support the game in the state. Budding talents have been nurtured at the sports hostels run by the government. Hockey has become a way of life for the people in many districts such as Sundargarh, Mayurbhanj and Sambalpur.”
Chief minister Naveen Patnaik believes that investment in youth is an investment in the future, and he has been doing that for a decade. By setting up high-performance centers in different sports in partnership with top corporates, Odisha's model is certainly one to follow.
“The government of Odisha also provisioned the highest amount of expenditure of its sports budget for the development of Hockey. In the last two decades, Odisha has made a tremendous addition in the Hockey Sports infrastructure in the state that no other state of the country has made,” the dynamic sports minsBehera added.
The high-performance center (HPC) at the state capital's Kalinga Stadium, established in partnership with the Tata Group, has started churning out world-class players. The facilities at the HPC are no less than at an Indian camp. With physios, masseurs and coaches always around the young kids, it will surely improve their performance and help them succeed at the highest level.
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With the new-found enthusiasm, it remains to be seen if Indian hockey can achieve greater heights and attract more sponsorship. The performance of both the men’s and women’s teams has inspired many to dream. The men's bronze at Tokyo is all set to become the stepping stone for future glory in the sport.