Kolkata: Come next week, the Indian men and women’s hockey teams - who came up with a soul-stirring show in Tokyo Olympics - have got their dates booked for two separate celebrations at Bhubaneshwar, the capital of Odisha. While there will be little down time for them throughout this week since the Olympians’ arrival in New Delhi on Monday evening thanks to the felcitations and endless interview requests - the ones scheduled on August 16-17 will be extra special to them.
The reason: Both Manpreet Singh and Rani Rampal’s teams have vindicated the faith, not to speak of the investment, that this eastern India state had put in for them over the last three years. When Indian hockey was launguishing without a sponsor after Sahara India’s pullout in 2018, the Odisha government stepped in with a deal worth Rs 1500 million (staggered for a period of five years) to support the men, women and junior national teams.
It’s the first time than an Indian state, and not any corporate, have stepped as sponsors of a national team. The results have shown with the men’s team securing a podium finish after 41 years with a sensational campaign while the women have climbed up to fourth spot from being the wooden spooners in Rio 2016 - while they are now at third and eighth positions in FIH rankings, respectively. This is also the first time that both men and women’s teams have made the semi-finals in Olympics together - raising a din from the sports fraternity that other states should emulate Odisha’s example by adopting each Olympic discipline in future.
We want to develop the Sundargarh district into a nodal centre for hockey and a new state-of-the-art stadium with a capacity of 20,000 is coming up in Rourkela - to be called Birsa Munda Stadium after the legendary tribal leader. It will be one of the venues, along with Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneshwar - for the next FIH World Cup which we will be hosting in 2023
A closer look at Odisha’s involvement with hockey shows that it’s been serious business for them rather than just ensuring the branding on the team shirts - far beyond the usual practice of financial doles and promises of jobs made by respective states of the successful athletes. The question, hence, begs to be asked is: what makes Odisha take their involvement with hockey so seriously?
‘‘One has to attribute it to the vision that Naveen Patnaik, our Chief Minister, had for hockey. The state’s involvement with hockey didn’t start overnight with our partnership with Hockey India as his plan to make Odisha a hub for hockey took off much before,’’ said Tusharkanti Behera, the state’s Minister for Sports & Youth Services.
Speaking to Gulf News during an exclusive interview over phone, Behara said they were extremely thrilled at the spirit both the teams had shown during their campaign. ‘‘The Chief Minister, who himself was also an avid hockey player during his school days, had been following all the games. When the women’s team lost narrowly to Great Britain in the bronze medal play-off, he spoke to them to remind that they had already won the hearts of the country,’’ he said.
‘‘You see, hockey is in our culture and the Sundargarh disrict produces national level players by the dozen. Deep Grace Ekka, the defender and vice-captain of women’s team in Tokyo, comes from that area. We want to develop that district into a nodal centre for hockey and a new state-of-the-art stadium with a capacity of 20,000 is coming up in Rourkela - to be called Birsa Munda Stadium after the legendary tribal leader. It will be one of the venues, along with Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneshwar - for the next FIH World Cup which we will be hosting in 2023,’’ he said.
Odisha, the new hockey hub?
It is ostensibly a matter of pride for a state like Odisha to score huge brownie points over states like Punjab, Karnataka or Jharkhand - the cradle of Indian hockey - to take such giant strides as a host of major international events and training facility.
‘‘The journey probably started in 2013 with the Hockey India League (HIL), then 2014 Champions Trophy - while we will be now back-to-back World Cups as we hosted the last one in 2018. As I said before, our vision was to create an eco system where by the state can continue to feed good hockey players for the country - we have a High Performance Centre in collaboration with Naval Tata Academy in Bhubaneshwar while work is on to lay 17 new astro turf stadiums in Sundargarh disrict,’’ the minister said.
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Soon after their Olympic campaigns, both men and women’s team captains thanked the Odisha government and their Chief Minister profusely for their continued support. While the smart branding has gone a long way in taking the state to the world, it had been quite a symbiotic relationship with Hockey India. ‘‘We have a long way to go but the process has begun,’’ said Behera.
Sponsors of Indian rugby team
Not deciding to stop at hockey, the Odisha government signed an agreement with Indian Rugby Football Union (IRFU) in October, 2020 to sponsor the Indian national rugby teams till 2023 and facilitate high performance training and conditioning of the players. ‘‘In recent years, there has been a steady rise of Rugby in terms of popularity and participation, particularly the participation of young players from the tribal and rural belts of Odisha. The sponsorship will be extended towards training, conditioning and incentivising the Indian national rugby teams, both men and women, participating in international rugby events,’’ the minister said.
The Odisha FC team, which participates in Indian Super League (ISL), is another extension of the state’s efforts to leverage on sport to add to their brand value. The state government had signed a partnership with Delhi Soccer Private Limited as co-owners of Odisha FC and want to push the brand to achieve better results than an wooden spoon finish in last year.
In another agreement with the All India Football Federation (AIFF), the state government is supporting the camps for national youth teams (Under-15 and U-19) and the aim to create the next bunch of footballers for the senior national team. AIFF, in return, will work with the Odisha government to positively impact the Odisha football ecosystem, with the aim of having more Odisha players in the national team set-up across age categories!