When hockey, the first sport which caught the imagination of this country, has been struggling to regain its lost glory in the Indian subcontinent Bhubaneswar has emerged as a breath of fresh air.
Bhubaneswar, which is known for its architectural beauties – the temples and surrounding Udayagiri and Khandagiri Caves, and religious life, is now synonymous with hockey.
In the last five years, the eastern India city hosted three top-notch tournaments- Hockey Champions Trophy 2014, Hockey World League 2017 and the Hockey World Cup 2018, among others.
In February 2018, when Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik unveiled a mega five-year deal worth Rs 150 crores with Hockey India (HI) at a gala event in New Delhi, everybody was left surprised. Patnaik's announcement relieved the Indian hockey teams since beleaguered official team sponsor Sahara had to pull out under an unprecedented situation.
Calling it Odisha's gift to the nation, Patnaik said, "Hockey in Odisha is more than a sport. It is a way of life in Odisha, where children grow upholding the hockey sticks."
In the history of Indian sports, this is probably the first time a state government not just taking interest in hosting big-ticket tournaments, but also supporting and nurturing sports.
The promised fund for the development of junior, men's and women's hockey teams have been provided by the Odisha Mining Corporation (OMC), a profit-making PSU, the main sponsor for all hockey events that would be played at Kalinga Stadium over the next five years.
The immediate result of this requisite support is the Indian men's hockey team winning bronze, its first medal in 41 years at the Olympic Games and the Indian women's team making the fortuitous fourth-place finish in three appearances in Tokyo.
Rise of Sports Capital
Having observed the developments and rise in hockey's skyrocketing popularity in Odisha, the incumbent Hockey India President Narinder Batra coined the idea of naming Bhubaneswar- the sports capital of India, in the lines of financial capital Mumbai and IT capital Bengaluru.
Following the path of hockey, other international sports bodies also joined the queue with a bid to host their tournaments in Bhubaneswar. The Odisha government was flooded with requests from international sports bodies to host their events in the state capital.
The state government didn't disappoint them either. In the last five years, Odisha hosted eight international events. Apart from a series of hockey events, they hosted Asian Athletics Championships, continental rowing and rugby championships, Women's Gold Cup football and Commonwealth Table Tennis Championships, respectively.
More recently, erstwhile ISL club Delhi Dynamos shifted their base to Bhubaneswar and renamed the franchise as Odisha FC. The city's Kalinga Stadium is also selected as one of the venues for the 2020 FIFA U-17 Women's World Cup, which has been postponed due to the pandemic.
When India F1 Futures, a $15000 worth hard-court tennis event, received good support from the Bhubaneswar crowd, CM Patnaik expressed his desire to host a Davis Cup tie at Kalinga Stadium in near future. The city also hosted AIFF Super Cup final 2019 in which Goa FC defeated Chennaiyin FC 2-1.
However, among all the sports, hockey appeared to be Odisha's trump card as it gave the state a facelift.
Odisha's bonhomie with international hockey was born in 2014 when they successfully hosted the Champions Trophy that convinced the HI and FIH to explore the city's facilities to organize many more marquee events.
Two years later, the Kalinga Lancers hockey team came to being. It won the Hockey India League in January 2016. In the meantime, the state government made sure they get the hosting rights for the Hockey World League finals in December 2017.
Fans thronged the Kalinga Hockey Stadium in a large number, even a heavy downpour couldn't take down their spirit. Naveen Patnaik's wish to turn Bhubaneswar into the sports capital of India got a massive boost when the city earned the hosting rights for the 2018 Hockey World Cup, held from November 28 to December 16.
Belgium, the new Olympic gold medallist, crowned the new champions of the quadrennial event in a gala finale in front of a packed house.
Kalinga Stadium – Nerve Centre
Taking cue of the state's successful bids in hosting multiple international tournaments, Asian Athletics Association opted for Odisha to host the Asian U-19 Girls Championships 2014.
In 2017, Bhubaneswar hosted the 22nd Asian Athletics Championships where 700 athletes from 42 countries participated. To host the event smoothly, the state government also built a 2,600 square metre lounge for the athletes.
Alongside it, three lakhs square feet of grass turfing and two lakhs square feet of tiles were laid out and 15.5 square feet of surface painting was done in just three months. The nerve point of the 2018 Hockey World Cup – Kalinga Stadium – was given a makeover as well. The stadium has now become the best multipurpose sports facility in the country.
But, how has Odisha, where poverty is predominant and natural calamities wreak havoc every year, become India's sports hub? A change in outlook has changed everything. Visionary Naveen Patnaik feels sports is a vehicle for socio-economic developments as its impact on society is multi-dimensional.
'Investing in Sports is Investing in Youths'
"Investment in sports is an investment in youth and investment in youth is an investment in future. See how Seoul has transformed after the 1984 Olympics and 1986 Asian Games, and Beijing after the 2008 Olympics. Their economy and global standing have changed," Patnaik remarked.
It is important to engage youths with creative activities and there is no alternative to sports at all. He believes sports will take brand Odisha to a new height.
Apart from promoting hockey, the Odisha sports ministry also sets a two-pronged strategy in order to produce future champions from athletics, weightlifting, badminton, football, archery and hockey, among others.
To unearth and foster sporting talent in the state, the Odisha government accelerates the process of setting up 10 High-Performance Centres (HPC) in partnership with companies and various academies run by sports legends. That impression also helped the youths take up sports as a sustainable career option.
In 2020, the state Finance Minister Niranjan Pujari allocated Rs.301 crore for the development of sports which is all but three times higher than the 2018-19's budget viz. 120 crores.
Eventually, the growing sports eco-system in the state, which is rich in minerals and energy resources, attracted major global sports bodies to bring their sports to Bhubaneswar as finding sponsors for an event has become easy here, thanks to sports-loving Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik's willingness.
From an alternative observation, bulk sports activities eventually helped Odisha to portray itself as a state where sports and socio-economic development flourish together.
This excerpt from 'MISSION GOLD: India's Quest for Olympic Glory' by Sudipta Biswas has been published with permission from Notion Press. A few changes have been made for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.