UNDER normal circumstances, organising a Hockey World Cup at one venue, with top teams participating from across the world, is quite a challenging task in itself. To organise it at two venues is like organising two World Cups simultaneously. Organising a marquee event in a small city like Rourkela which had never seen any international event, at a new stadium directly going into World Cup matches without conducting a single international match, to hosting eight teams in a 225-room World Cup Village (completed days before the arrival of the teams), to starting commercial and chartered flights at a new airport just days before the event — it all looks unreal. But, with grit and determination and despite numerous challenges, including Covid-19, the Government of Odisha, in partnership with Hockey India and Government of India, pulled off one of the best organised Hockey World Cups, providing a spectacular experience for the teams and fans.
On the first day of the 15th edition of the FIH Hockey Men’s World Cup, when the 20,000-odd crowd at the Birsa Munda Hockey Stadium, Rourkela, roared to every move and goal of Team India against Spain, Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik had tears of joy in his eyes and a deep sense of satisfaction for building the world’s largest all-seated hockey stadium and initiating a unique hockey experience.
In 2019, he had taken the bold decision to host the World Cup in a city like Rourkela where there was no standard stadium or hotels or even a functional airport. His only guiding principle was to take the best of hockey to the heartland where it is played and inspire a new generation of hockey players. It was a historic decision which will be appreciated decades from now. He launched Rourkela on to the global hockey map.
There was criticism when India was selected again to host the World Cup, after successfully hosting it in 2018 in Bhubaneswar, Odisha. Many European countries and other leading hockey-playing nations were against it. Chief Minister Patnaik wholeheartedly supported the idea to host the World Cup consecutively in Odisha, 2022-23 being the 75th year of India’s Independence.
He understands the deep connect between hockey and Indian nationalism. He was influenced by his father, the late Biju Patnaik, in valuing the role of hockey towards Indian nationalism and creating a unique space for India on the world stage.
At a time when India was just an idea, a team of mainly native players from the erstwhile British India defeated the best European teams and won Olympic gold medals, repeatedly. These feats, including defeating Hitler’s Germany in the Berlin Olympics finals in 1936, smashed the theories of white supremacy and brought a sense of confidence and joy to a nation struggling for identity and freedom.
Chief Minister Patnaik was clear that in the Indian mind, hockey is the national game, whether officially notified or not. Therefore, the game needs to be respected and restored. He decided to build the largest and world’s best hockey stadium in the heartland of hockey in Odisha: Rourkela. It was his way of paying tribute to Indian hockey.
However, constructing such a large stadium was a serious challenge given the timelines. The pandemic led to lockdowns for most part of 2020 and 2021. Practically, the work could start in September 2021 but was repeatedly affected by the Covid waves and adverse weather conditions, including the heatwave, extended monsoons, cyclones, etc. The situation was further complicated by the disruption in global manufacturing and supply chains due to the pandemic and the Russia-Ukraine war. All the activities were taken up on a mission mode and every odd was overcome to complete the stadium in a short period of 15 months.
Even more challenging was constructing the World Cup Village with 225 rooms. In January 2022, it was decided to go for a new building since the proposed upgradation of an existing building could not materialise due to structural capacity issues. With just a year to go, it was looking impossible to build and operationalise a 225-room star facility for the teams and officials. The work started in April and within a short period of nine months, the World Cup Village was operationalised. It’s a huge achievement considering the complexities involved in putting together a facility of this scale.
The Chief Minister trusted his Team Odisha and they delivered. The hockey players were quite happy with the concept of a World Cup stadium with its own Village and all teams staying together without the hassles of urban noise, traffic and the pain of commute for training. Some even commented that the Village, serviced by The Taj Group, was better than the Olympic Village.
The foggy weather in Rourkela created some disruption in the flight services a few days into the World Cup. The teams were provided chartered flights between Rourkela and Bhubaneswar, another unique feature of this World Cup. The adverse weather affected the transportation plans. Some emergency measures were taken to transport the luggage by road and airlift the players. The teams and officials were very cooperative and adjusted to the situation as they knew that the organisers were trying their best.
The World Cup was a fortnight of celebration of hockey, reflected in some great matches on the field, fantastic crowd response in the galleries, festive fan parks, city-level cultural and entertainment programmes, trophy tour and much more. This FIH Men’s Hockey World Cup 2023 set a new benchmark and will be remembered for being all-inclusive.
The big takeaway from this mega event is to always keep the faith and have a never-say-die attitude. This was displayed by the Government of Odisha. The champions Germans exemplified this with their cool comebacks in all the crucial matches and lifted the trophy.
Odisha will continue to keep its faith in Indian hockey and its potential for glory — the reason why Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik invests in hockey, be it world-class stadiums, hockey training centres at the block level, high-performance centre, sponsoring Indian teams, etc. In Olympics, only hockey can bring together the entire nation. If a bronze medal in Tokyo Olympics made a nation cry with joy, imagine what a gold can do!
— The writer is Special Secretary to the Odisha CM and Secretary, Department of Sports and Youth Services
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