Bishan Das Sports Club is abuzz with the clattering of hockey sticks. Children as young as 12 are trying to grasp basic skills, with dreams of making it to Panposh Sports Hostel, which is a few kilometres away.
While the distance may not be long, the journey is full of roadblocks. Some of them have known hockey only as a game of ‘Genda’ – yes, that is what it is called in the interiors of Odisha, especially in Sundargarh area, the district which has given us over 60 international players, including former skipper Dilip Tirkey. The area is famed for holding local tournaments, much like gully cricket, only they are played with a full team and the losing team provides either Kukuda (chicken) or a feast.
Youngsters such as Arti Sahu thought that if the boys near her Chhend locality can play hockey, why should a girl like her should be deprived of this wonderful game! Armed with a worn-out, second-hand stick, at age 13, Arti picked up the game and now is an active member of Bishan Das Sports Club.
After training for a little over two years, Arti has dreams of making it to the Panposh hostel to get 24X7 training, which she hopes will help her realise the dreams of making a name for herself as a striker. “I am preparing for the trials for the sports hostel,” says Arti, who adores Dilip Tirkey.
There are dozens of dreams such as hers, ready to take flight, talented lads such as Jon Paul Kandulna, Abhishek Toppo, Yogesh Prasad… Prasad, who is in the 15-17 age bracket, wants to make it big in sports. Along with the upcoming trials, the trio also dreams of seeing a live international match in Rourkela’s Birsa Munda Hockey Stadium, which is being constructed for the 2023 FIH Hockey World Cup only. “I have seen a lot of matches in the sports hostel but this time I am looking forward to watching an international match. Live match kabhi nahi dekha hai (I haven’t seen a live hockey match ever). We can pick up a few skills from the international players for sure,” says Kandulna.
Sundargarh district has always been synonymous with hockey. The hosting of the World Cup, which would be the second one here since 2018, has coincided with a fresh push from the state government to provide smaller, multipurpose venues throughout the state. In Sundargarh alone, the district is coming up with 16 turfs to keep the feeder belt running.
All this is part of the “Sports for Youth, Youth for Future” thrust that is making Odisha an ideal environment for sports culture. “The idea is to give the right tools to these youngsters. With this, these young people will start training on turf very early in their formative years,” R. Vineel Krishna, who is the state’s sports secretary, said of this new initiative.
Model state for sports
Krishna also explains how things are different in Odisha. It comes with a realisation that departments and ministries must follow stipulated rules, and this sometimes gets in the way of great ideas.
“When we talk about partnerships we are trying to see how strengths of different stakeholders are leveraged. What is the government's strength?” Krishna asks and answers: “We have funds we can invest in creating infrastructure. What is our weakness? The coaching programme, because it requires a lot of flexibility, whereas the government's usual tendency will be to have a stricter norm. For example, take diet. If you look at SAI or our diet plan, it will be the same for all sports, whereas weightlifting may require a different diet compared to athletics.”
“Those flexibilities can only be brought by a private player. As government, we will have certain slabs in the appointment of coaches. But if a good coach, a foreign coach has to be brought in, he might cost more,” he adds. “With the government, it is extremely difficult to do. That’s why for the coaching programme we involve corporates. They bring in the coaches, define the coaching programme and spend the money.”
Already, former Hockey India High Performance Director David John has joined as director of hockey with the Sports Department. In the same Kalinga Stadium, South Africa’s Douglas Eager has joined alongside Asian Games medallist Sandeep Sejwal to run a high-performance centre. There is also a beeline of A-list stars, including Abhinav Bindra, Gagan Narang and Pulella Gopichand, who are all part of the upcoming high performance centres. A few of these, including the Aditya Birla-Gagan Narang Shooting High Performance Centre and Abhinav Bindra Targeting Performance Centre, are already up and running under pay-and-play schemes
The state has already invested over Rs 150 crore in sponsorships of all hockey teams. Last year, when the national hockey teams did exceptionally well at the Tokyo Olympics – the men won a bronze, the women finished fourth – Odisha’s contribution was hailed. This partnership has now been extended till 2033.
Sitting next to Krishna is Tirkey, who now heads the committee of hockey in the state. “We can provide the infrastructure but we really need good people to head these places. If you see, hockey has changed already. The focus now is on drag-flickers and first runners, like Amit Rohidas,” Tirkey says. “That’s why we keep looking for good people,” he adds.
Tirkey is right. Vijay Kumar Sahu, coach in the sports hostel, explains how the focus in training has changed. “Most of our boys have the skills. They have played near their houses or in local matches. So skill was never a problem for us,” says Sahu, who has represented the state in the Nationals.
“Fitness drills are a big change from the time I started as a coach. We focus more on their fitness than we used to do 10-15 years ago. As coaches we have to keep ourselves updated with the changes otherwise we are not helping our trainees at all,” he added.
Support for change and new methods is due to the commitment the state government. Krishna says the state government is making a huge investment in sports because the ruling dispensation believes that “investment in sport is investment in the future”. “So, over the last decade, there has been a significant promotion and development of sports ecosystem,” he says. This explains why Odisha has become a favourite destination for hockey tournaments, and the biggest supporter of Indian hockey.
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