The Steel City and its timeless culture of sports


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In 1991, the city of Jamshedpur, the Steel City, was gifted a stadium that effectively manifested the wishes of the city founder after whom the township was named. While the JRD Tata Sports Complex is now one of the main venues for the newly formed Jamshedpur FC, it was earlier used for the sole purposes of training the city’s young and elite sporting stars alike and as the grounds that hosted the “Annual Sports Days” for the major schools there. And, among others, one thing that stands out about this state of the art venue is the Olympic rings about 400mts from the entrance. They effectively convey the sentiment on which Jamshedpur or- for the sake of context let’s call it by its official name, Tatanagar was built.

The country’s first industrial town would not have been possible without a dream dreamt by a visionary willing to push boundaries. JN Tata’s vision of an industrial town in India was far from the model British industrial towns that thrived on cheap labour and a robot-like routine. His vision reached beyond just brick-and-mortar endeavours which were but just the base of Jamshedpur. The people were the soul.

At JRD Tata Sports Complex

He detailed his concept of a township for the workers at the steel plant in a letter he wrote to Sir Dorab Tata in 1902, five years before even a site for the enterprise had been decided.

“Be sure that there is plenty of space for lawns and gardens,” the letter said. “Reserve large areas for football, hockey and parks.” That is the kind of centre-stage treatment sports was destined to get in this small city with an estimated population of 1,337,131.

It’s heartening to see that this principle has endured the test of time not only within the city limits of Tatanagar but throughout the Steel conglomerate’s numerous ventures as well. While in the past, Sir Dorab Tata’s role in forming the organisation we now know as the Indian Olympic Association remains a benchmark, today we see the results that Tata Motors Commercial Vehicles’ association with the Wrestling Federation of India has brought forth. In an unprecedented move, participants of an Olympic sport were awarded centralised contracts by their parent body.

But the real success story of the Tatas lies at the absolute grassroots.

And to understand this, one must go back to the city that started it all- the bustling establishment that is Tatanagar.

“The Tata Group runs on a central strategy where all the participants will be taking up certain sports,” says Mukul Choudhary, administrator of Tata Steel sports wing in conversation with The Bridge at the Tata Football Academy. “So while TCS focuses on Running, Commercial Vehicles have now taken up wrestling. But these projects have nothing to do with the grassroots.”

The Tata Football Academy ground.

To draw on a memory back from my school days, I remembered the Tata Football Academy (TFA) as being nothing short of a sort of hallowed ground. It was widely touted to have the best facilities, the best coaches and an overall footballing environment that made it extremely prestigious to have the chance to train there. Since the inception of Jamshedpur FC, the facility has doubled up as the training ground for the B-team which both lives and practices there while adhering to a disciplined schedule. Given where we were, the conversation did inevitably take a detour towards Tata’s newer involvement in commercial sports like the Indian Super League or the Pro Kabaddi League. But as Mr Choudhary quickly added, the Academy level is what is targeted.

“At the last Olympics in Rio, out of the four candidates which represented India, three were from Tata Archery Academy. And, if you go back a couple of years, one gets a fair idea of the number of elite sportspersons supported by Tata,” he says.

“There are two parts to how sports is a culture in Jamshedpur,” he adds. “At the JRD Sports Complex, one part is engagement sports. This is for the community of Tata Steel and by extension, the people of Jamshedpur.”

The engagement sports comprises of some 16 disciplines including chess, karate, basketball, archery, hockey, volleyball, handball and football and willing participants may enjoy formal training at a minimal fee. This branch of the structure aims at raising sports to an essential within this small community by inviting more people to partake. It’s also worth pointing out here that a culture of sports and fitness is what the current administration at the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports has propagated quite aggressively with the inception of the Khelo India Games and the social media campaigns #5MinuteAur and #HumFitTohIndiaFit. The precedent for this had certainly been set a long time back.

“There are two parts to how sports is a culture in Jamshedpur”

“The children or students at this level may very well be good enough to participate at the States or nationals but that’s not what they are particularly trained for,” Mr Choudhury clarifies.

“For the sports for community engagement, Tata Steel has a provision for providing scholarships for outstanding performances at the state or national level- a general scholarship.”

A monthly stipend is given to the recipients of the scholarship which they might use towards any help possible.

Former World No 1 Archer Deepika Kumari, a product of Tata Archery Academy, is a major success story (Image: WorldArchery)

“And as far as academies which are supposed to churn out National and International level athletes, Jamshedpur has three- The Tata Football, Archery and Hockey academies. This forms the second branch of our engagement with sports.”

“Out of these, I would say that the sport of Hockey has seen the maximum change in the way we approach it. The game has changed a lot too transitioning from grass to astroturfs.” Mr Choudhury continues. “Earlier, training of all magnitudes took place at the JRD Sports Complex itself and now, we have a separate Hockey Academy some 7-8 kilometres from here. It has a proper astroturf for training.”

The Naval Tata Hockey Academy (Image: Avenue Mail)

The availability of turfs in the country has been a major sore point in the recent past as this lack of infrastructure is deemed to be one of the biggest reasons why the game remains dominant only in certain pockets of the country. However, 2017 saw something revolutionary wherein a state-sponsored the two national teams with corporate-like thinking. Incidentally, Tata Steel is also the first private company to open a hockey academy so, with the renewed interest in the sport and barring the constant administrative issues, are we to see better days in the near future?

To get a fair idea about the seriousness with which sports is taken here, the city recently saw the addition of a High-Performance Centre in late 2018 which as Mr Mukul Choudhury describes, was “necessary when you deal with so many different athletes.”

“Data analytics and its relevance in the world of sports is growing at an exponential rate,” he says. “What we essentially do is help an athlete use available data for their advantage.”

“Maybe, it’ll be to help them recover from an injury faster, or achieve their targets or set realistic ones. The science of sports is the hero there,” he adds.


Also read: Scoring big with Analytics: Performance Analysis finds growing relevance in Indian sport.


But the decision to focus predominantly at the grassroots was a conscious one as Mr Choudhury explains. “What we need today, in so young a country is support at the grassroots. If you identify the talent early and support them, the dropout rate will be lower than it is today.” It is probably relevant to note that the median age of the country at this point is 27.0 years (Data on Jan 25, 2019)

“Balancing education and sports remains a challenge today but the situation is a lot better than it used to say 20 years back,” he notes. “The rise of endorsements and visibility has certainly helped the cause.”

“Take the example of Jamshedpur FC itself,” he says. “A corporate venture has suddenly put the city back on the map to the extent that every match held at JRD Sports Complex sees a filled stadium. The fanbase keeps growing with every game. Parents and children attend religiously and the youth of Jamshedpur who have migrated to different cities for higher studies and careers now ask if it would be possible to return to the city and work with JFC in any capacity.”

“Creating the culture is as important as building the infrastructure. Even more so today in this age of social media,” Mr Choudhury adds.

But this structure comes with its share of challenges. In a bid to make sports accessible to the general public, one has to make training affordable. And at that cost, good teachers become increasingly difficult to come by. Perhaps one thing that this entire structure lacked until very recently is the presence of its own internal coach education program for the variety of streams it supports. “We rectified that by opening nearly 30 coach education centres- a C licence program and a D licence program. Presently, it is only for football and we have 16 C license coaches currently. It’s not much but it’s a start.”

JRD Sports Complex, the home turf of Jamshedpur FC

“What we are trying to do is work with the schools here,” he adds. “So the trained coaches who are employed by the schools and thus, children can be scouted and trained from a younger age than what is happening presently- the average age at which players entered TFA before this was around 16-years by which time it is already too late to correct and train an athlete.”

With plans to extend the current structure to include exclusive Para sports training as well, one is left contemplating the intricacies of the sports structure involved in this township. To think, that such an environment figured as early as 1902 and took shape as early as 1987 (that was when TFA was set up) really provides a precedent for corporates in this country. This was perhaps best enunciated at the Tata Marathon in January 2018.

“Events like the marathon promote values like grit, tenacity, excellence, perseverance, belief, commitment and passion that have been a key part of the Tata group’s ethos since its inception,” said N Chandra, chairman of Tata Sons. “Partnering with India’s premier long-distance running event is a great way for the Tata group to increase our engagement with the community, raise funds for charity as well as create social awareness about the necessity of good health and fitness.”

And the sentiment towards Jamshedpur was best summed up by Mr Mukul Choudhury who signed off by saying, “Jamshedpur truly is one of the best places for children to grow up in.”


Also read: Long-term investment in sport is essential for India to benefit