In a way, it was a coup of sorts. The rebellion had been coming for quite some time. Sports really hadn't been a way of life in 'Orissa', but when it changed its name to 'Odisha', it did seem that sports could pave the way to make the state happier. Most in the country point to Odisha and its poverty as a calling card. That still sticks. Not that many ask why one of India's richest state in terms of minerals remains impoverished, especially in the rural belt. But that is another story for another day.
In the 80's and early 90's, Bhubaneswar was just another bustling city, a state capital, happy to play spectator. In fact, sport meant going down to Cuttack to watch an ODI or a Test match. Fans still remember Kapil Dev castling Rumesh Ratnayake for his 300th Test wicket during the 1st Test ever played at the Barabati Stadium. But that is where sport started and ended in Odisha.
Indian men's and women's hockey team captains Manpreet Singh (right) and Rani Rampal. Image courtesy: Facebook/Hockey India
Joy was also seeing Debasis Mohanty and Shiv Sunder Das turn out for the Indian cricket team. Hockey remained far from Bhubaneswar. Not many followed it even though in later years, players like Michael Kindo " originally from Simdega in Jharkhand but settled in Rourkela " played the National Championships for Odisha. Not many outside of hockey circles in Odisha know him as a player who represented India in three World Cups and one Olympics.
It's an overnight journey from Bhubaneswar through Dhenkanal and Angul to Sundergarh district lying on the border with Chhattisgarh. This is a hockey heartland. Connected, yet cut off from mainstream Odisha. In the tribal heartland, over the years, the only sport has been hockey. They say missionaries introduced hockey to the tribal population, the adivasis, and it stayed, becoming their regimen for staying fit.
Jaipal Singh Munda, from Chotanagpur (South Bihar), put hockey on the world map as an adivasi player. He was a Munda and being bright had been sent to Oxford University by the missionaries. He captained India at the 1928 Olympic Games, when India returned home with a gold medal around their necks. It took years for that achievement to filter down to the lowest block division in most tribal areas, but Jaipal remained the inspiration. Yet for many years, hockey remained an adivasi sport in Odisha; in its extreme north-western part. Thanks to the steel plant set up in Rourkela by the Germans, hockey players found avenues to gain employment and adivasis turned up in large numbers for the RSP team. The sport remained alive. But none of the successive state governments actually promoted the sport either by laying astro-turfs or boosting its sporting stars.
Things started to change when Dilip Tirkey retired and came into the limelight as a politician and becoming a BJD (Biju Janata Dal) MP in Rajya Sabha.
More than five years ago, a meeting took place at Naveen Patnaik's classy residence at 3 Aurangzeb Marg, now renamed Dr Abdul Kalam Marg. Tirkey had gone to meet the chief minister and watching their interaction, I was struck by the camaraderie and massive mutual respect. The seeds of what we see as the push towards a sporting capital, I believe, happened right there. In an atmosphere vitiated by constant jostling by political parties trying to gain ascendancy, sport was perhaps now in the CM's mind as an instrument of positive change.
It was no surprise that Odisha won the hosting rights to the 2014 Champions Trophy. Fans came in droves and suddenly hockey was catapulted to the top spot. The formation of the Hockey India League franchise Kalinga Lancers was another step in the right direction. Hockey attendance may have been falling in other states or centres but The Kalinga Stadium recorded packed houses.
Bhubaneswar was no more just the tourist capital and when it was announced that Odisha's state capital would step in for Ranchi to host the 2017 Asian Athletics Championships, CM Patnaik's vision in pushing sports came to the fore. Politicians in the state did speak about the masterstroke in using sport as a diversionary tactic, a ploy to distract from the state's usual problems. But the Odia fed up with the usual negative stories found respect and pride that the state and its capital was now viewed as a sports capital. The Asian Athletics Championships was an eye opener. It wouldn't have even attracted 1000 fans if the event was held in Delhi or elsewhere. But 10,000 fans packed in to watch what became mesmerising stuff for most sports followers in Odisha. It did help that Dutee Chand and Srabani Nanda, two of India's top female sprinters and the national 100m champion Amiya Mallick came from Bhubaneswar itself.
And when the Hockey World League Finals reached Bhubaneswar, it was apparent that Patnaik would not just be satisfied hosting tournaments. "I think he sees something bigger here," feels former Indian captain Tirkey. "As part of his political party, I know that hosting tournaments is not purely mileage for him but that he does believe that sport should be an ingredient of change and that it brings out a positive frame of mind."
Critics have pointed out that Odisha should not be using its name on an Indian shirt worn by the national team and have hinted towards it not being 'nationalistic. Odisha relies on tourism to push its revenues and everybody understands that it hasn't been pushed enough either. If the Konark Chakra, one of the most iconic symbols of Indian tourism, is on the Indian hockey shirt, it's a matter of huge pride.
Tourism is one of the main contributors to the economy of Odisha and the figures of 2015-16 show that it contributed 13 percent of the GDP of Odisha. In fact, tourist footfall intensity in Odisha is 29 percent higher than that at the national-level. Foreign tourist arrivals stood at 67,000-plus in 2015/16. With Odisha now sponsoring hockey and the 2018 World Cup coming up that figure should easily increase. If there is a worry it should be whether Bhubaneswar has the adequate hotel room strength for foreign hockey tourists arriving for the 2018 World Cup.
There are no clear-cut sponsorship figures yet. But it would be safe to say that it will touch Rs 100 crore for a five-year-deal. Looking at the amount of hockey that India play or are playing at the moment, it seems a good time to cash in. Yes, to argue that a state should spend this much on a national hockey team has its share of critics. A few will point out that in the same sum of money Odisha could have laid 30 astro-turfs and built up academies and also have some left over for other sports too.
Yes, it could have. But then let the Sports Ministry and Sports Authority of India also create infrastructure. Popularising a sport that has such an impact on Indian Olympic history also needs to be applauded. A ridiculous argument is that because there were no corporate sponsors so the state had to step in. Maybe, it's time to view the state as a corporate. Maybe, it's time Kerala Tourism stepped in as Indian football sponsor or as the sponsor to the Junior Indian football team. Maybe, Haryana could be the next sponsor of the wrestling or boxing teams. Think laterally " maybe, Patnaik has shown the way in how states can sponsor sport.
Sundergarh has more hockey talent per inch than any district in India. Give one example across the country where a local adivasi tournament draws more than a thousand teams! And by acknowledging that adivasis are the ones who have kept hockey running in Odisha, the state has provided a fillip. Yes, the money may not go down to the huts that dot the jungles of Sundergarh. But as Tirkey says, "Even those who have switched over to the Maoists will now believe there is a future in hockey in Odisha."
The national hockey team shirt means a lot. Lakhs vie to be a part of that 18-member team that will represent India abroad " Olympics, World Cup and various tournaments across the globe. For Indians living abroad and hockey fans in general, Odisha is now synonymous with the sport. For the state and its soft-spoken CM, sport is probably the legacy he would want to leave behind.