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Behind Olympic hockey success, Odisha’s support over the years

When in 2018, the state government decided to sponsor the Indian national hockey teams (men/women, junior/senior) for a tenure of five years, replacing Sahara, it was the first time that a state government had decided to sponsor a national team. The government had pledged Rs 150 crore for the purpose.

As India celebrates the entry of the men’s and women’s hockey teams in the Olympics semifinals, the success holds a special significance for Odisha, which has been at the forefront of supporting the sport. Not only are the current vice-captains of the men’s and women’s teams from Odisha, but the state has over the years produced several national-level hockey players and stepped up to develop infrastructure and sponsor national teams.

When in 2018, the state government decided to sponsor the Indian national hockey teams (men/women, junior/senior) for a tenure of five years, replacing Sahara, it was the first time that a state government had decided to sponsor a national team. The government had pledged Rs 150 crore for the purpose.

“The state government would like to continue to partner and provide the best facilities to the teams. The main objective is to bring back the glory of Indian hockey. Indians have an emotional connection with hockey, which is believed to be the national game of the country. Therefore, Odisha will extend all possible support in the coming years,” Secretary, Sports and Youth Department, Government of Odisha, Vineel Krishnan said.

The state has hosted major tournaments in the last five years. It hosted the World Cup in 2018, the 2014 Champions Trophy, and Hockey World League final in 2017. It is also the host for the 2023 Men’s Hockey World Cup, to be played in Bhubaneswar and Rourkela.

“Not just in India, but even on the world forum, for a state to step up and support a sport, the contribution of Odisha is immense. The fact that national teams have camped in Bhubaneswar ahead of major tournaments is a manifestation of how we have progressed in terms of infrastructure and logistical support,” former Indian hockey captain and chairman of Hockey Promotion Council Dilip Tirkey said.

With the World cup in mind, the state cabinet in March this year approved the ‘State-level Sports Infrastructure Development Project’ for development of infrastructure at Kalinga Stadium, Bhubaneswar, and construction of International Hockey Stadium in Rourkela, at an estimated cost of Rs 356.38 crore. The Rourkela stadium will be the largest in India, with 20,000 seating capacity.

In 2018, collaborating with Tata group, the state government established a Hockey High Performance Centre at Kalinga Stadium. It also has 12 grassroot centres, at which over 2,500 young trainees are being trained.

Of the 20 sports hostels in the state, two in Sundargarh are dedicated to hockey. The state government is now working to set up 17 astro turfs in all 17 blocks of the district.

“Indians used to dominate hockey till the arrival of synthetic turfs. It is important for our kids to start playing on synthetic turfs. Therefore, we are investing Rs 200 crore for 20 hockey training centres. The state will provide professional coaching based on sports science from a young age,” Krishnan said.

The state has over the years produced greats like Dilip Tirkey, Ignace Tirkey, Lazarus Barla and Sunita Lakra. The current Indian team has Birendra Lakra, vice-captain of men’s team, and Deep Grace Ekka, vice-captain of women’s team. The common link between them all is their home district of Sundargarh.

In Sundargarh, a mineral district in northern Odisha, hockey is more than just a sport. With the recent performances at the Olympics, the district has erupted in joy. “We get queries about hockey even from remote villages. Due to the pandemic, we could not conduct the talent search, but enquiries have not ceased. We are confident that with the infrastructure development and overall boost to the sport, we will produce more and more national players from here,” said Sundargarh District Sports Coordinator and senior hockey coach Milton Bilung.

“Deep was 11 when she started training under me. Over a decade a lot has changed. With the current boost to the sport, many children are more interested in hockey,” Tejkumar Xess, senior coach of the state hockey team and Deep’s uncle, said.

Veteran players are also rooting for talent from other districts. “Of late, players have emerged from Deogarh and Sambalpur as well, but we wish to focus on districts like Koraput, Kandhamal, Malkangiri as well, and set up nursery training centres,” Tirkey said.

“As a coach, the only gap we feel is the lack of coaches for all districts of the state. We are just four coaches. If every district has a coach, healthy competition within districts will help develop our young players better,” Xess said.

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