The Silent Maker Of India’s Hockey Victory
Every Indian born around independence will tell with pride the stories of Major Dhyan Chand and India’s undefeated glory in hockey, a sport widely touted as our national game. For ten consecutive Olympics held, India won a medal in hockey in each of them. From 1928 to 1972, India was a dominant, unchallenged force, winning seven gold medals, two silver medals and a bronze. After a gap of one Olympics, India secured, for the last time in the 1900s, an Olympic medal in hockey. That medal was a gold won in Moscow in 1980. The next time the Indian hockey team would win a medal in the sport was the bronze medal secured years later in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. This long gap can perhaps be attributed to the shift of the Indian populace’s focus from hockey to cricket. Post the 1983 cricket world cup victory, a win so massive and unfathomable, the craze around cricket rose and other sports seemed to have taken a backseat. In 2020 however, the Indian men’s hockey team bagged a medal and the women’s team came close, securing the fourth position. What turned around in 2020 to cause a resurgence of India in the world of hockey?
Tokyo 2020 Olympics, which took place in the summer of 2021 because of the pandemic, was the most successful Olympics by far for India. India won seven medals— one gold, two silvers, and four bronzes. The most historically significant victory out of all those medals was perhaps the bronze we won for hockey which marked a return of India to the hockey arena after a slump of over forty years. It is important to note that the women’s hockey team came fourth in the 2020 Olympics. The victory is owed primarily to the players, the coaches, and everyone directly involved but it would have been impossible without the help of a small state in eastern India— the state of Odisha.
In February of 2018, Odisha became the chief sponsor of hockey by signing a 150-crore deal with Hockey India (the chief organisation that plans, directs, and conducts all the activities for both men’s and women’s hockey in India). Through this deal, Odisha became the game’s official sponsor till the year 2023. In 2021, after the bronze victory in the Olympics, the contract was renewed to extend Odisha’s sponsorship till the year 2033. Odisha then subsequently held two world hockey championships (in 2018 and in 2023). The state built multiple stadiums and all the infrastructure necessary to support the sport. The Kalinga Stadium built in 1978 was revamped to hold the 2018 World Cup. In 2018, construction had just begun for the Birsa Munda Stadium, now the largest hockey stadium in the world. Aside from holding the men’s world cup twice, the Odisha government has made significant progress and given extensive support to other sports as well. A quick look through their website will tell you that.
But all this compels the question: What is so special about Odisha? Why, of all the states, the Centre and many corporations, the state of Odisha went out of its way to sponsor and invest so much money into hockey, a game that was believed to be a dying sport? The answer to this enigma lies in Odisha’s cultural history.
“Odisha, especially the tribal-dominated Sundergarh district, is a storehouse of hockey talent. It all began long back when Christian missionaries came to the district. They found the game as an easy way to unite the local tribes, which had a flair for hockey. It was the cheapest and best way of bringing them together,” says Olympian Lazarus Barla, who honed his hockey skills at the Panposh sports hostel in Sundergarh.
The missionaries had made hockey compulsory in school and it quickly spread which made it intrinsically linked to Odisha’s culture. A poster at the exit of Birsa Munda stadium reads “Hockey is a way of life” which it literally is, for the people of Sundergarh, where this craze originated. In fact, almost 90% of Odisha’s hockey players come from Sundergarh.
In 1985, the Panposh sports hostel was set up in Sundergarh. The hostel has produced several legends of Indian hockey including former India captain and incumbent Hockey India president Dilip Tirkey, Lazarus Barla, Ignace Tirkey, and Prabodh Tirkey . Moreover, Naveen Patnaik, the CM of Odisha who approved this plan was the captain of his hockey team at school as well!
It is indeed refreshing to see the sort of positive interplay of politics and sports that Odisha has displayed. Naveen Patnaik while speaking to the press said, that “investment in sports is an investment in youth, and investment in youth is an investment in future”. The case of Odisha’s sponsorship of hockey highlights the importance of the government’s backing of sports. The heights that our youth can achieve with proper support are limitless. Without the infrastructure and support given for the sport, it would have been very difficult for the Indian teams to leave a mark at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
India has for far too long given an unbalanced importance to cricket and the focus needs to shift to other sports. Talented youth aspiring for certain sports cannot be left behind and denied the right to cultivate their talent and game. This is not a complaint or an attack on cricket, but rather a call for attention to other sports and to the talented youth that will carry India’s name in the international arena and establish a legacy of their own in every game imaginable.