ODISHA'S RECENT EMERGENCE AS A MAJOR player in the national sports scene is something that has come out of the left field.
Even a few years back, Odisha was seen as an outlier when it came to sports, especially prominent team sports like football, cricket and hockey. The state produced some decent individual athletes and hosted an international cricket game or two from time to time but it was hardly seen as an epicenter of major sporting activity on a national level.
Fast forward to present day, the state has hosted back to back major football tournaments like the Federation Cup last season and the Super Cup this season. They hosted matches of the Hockey World League and the Hockey World Cup is scheduled to be held in the state this year. Crucial events in athletics, boxing and other disciplines have also been held in Odisha over the last couple of years, and the caldendar is getting ever busier.
What prompted this sudden change? A recent push from the Odisha state government to build and re-furbish critical infrastructure like stadiums and athlete accommodation facilities certainly played a part, but a deeper look suggests this is a part of a larger change of perspective that's happening within the state.
TFG caught up with Mr Vishal Kumar Dev, a 1996 batch IAS officer who last year took charge as the Secretary for Sports and Youth Affairs in Odisha. Doing this along with being responsible for the mining department as well as Odisha's Hydro Power Corporation Limited, he is one of the fresh faces in the administration who is pushing for the use of sports as tools for societal outreach and upliftment.
Speaking about the recently concluded Hero Super Cup, Dev recalled how his department had to manage their resources to prepare for the competition with barely any time in their hands,
"We had to prepare the stadium on a short notice and the biggest challenge was bringing the pitch up to speed. It was under normal maintenance, the last match held here - an ISL game - was a while ago. Making transport and hospitality arrangements for so many teams was also another issue we faced. Since it was an unscheduled event for us, we also had to dig into other budgets for funds."
The bigger challenge, though, was getting the infrastructure ready to host more than a dozen major clubs in one city and tending to their daily training needs,
"We had one practice pitch available at the Kalinga Stadium. For additional pitches we looked at Utkal University and KIT University. KIT University were kind enough to let teams use their practice fields. Then the Birla Group University field was also there. Whoever we approached made the fields available. Everybody cooperated."
Even providing security for the matches was an experience the organizers had to learn on the fly. As the tournament progressed, fans of various clubs, mainly those of East Bengal, Mohun Bagan and Bengaluru FC, travelled to Bhubaneswar to support their teams and some minor erupted in the galleries that the police had to step in and break up. Mr Dev said of those incidents,
"I think it's normal but we weren't expecting it. When it happened we took appropriate measures. We created a buffer zone between the two groups and it was all right. I think it's to be expected. Sports is a very passionate issue, and with teams like East Bengal and Mohun Bagan playing, three thousand-odd fans coming in, you can expect some fireworks. It's something everybody enjoys but you don't want anything to go wrong, I think we pulled it off very well."
What was interesting about the Super Cup's last few games, though, was the notable presence of local fans. After hosting the Federation Cup, some ISL matches as well as the Super Cup, the football fans in Odisha seem to be increasingly interested in watching and attending domestic football. When asked if that's a possible cue that Bhubaneswar is ready to have a major football club of its own, Dev chuckled,
"We're mulling the possibility of buying a team. When the opportunity comes, we'll see... we've had some discussions with interested parties but nothing is final yet, because the chance to buy a franchise in the Indian Super League will open up only next year. So far the support has been encouraging, so hopefully we should be able to have one."
But Mr Dev assured that the recent trend of hosting major football tournaments in Odisha was likely to continue and grow,
"We've had some discussions with All India Football Federation and I think we should be hosting some major events in the coming years."
Maybe even an ISL final?
"Yeah, why not?"
But is it just football that Odisha wants to go big on? After all, Kalinga Lancers in the Hockey India League are quite popular. How about a Pro Kabaddi franchise? Mr Dev hesitated to reveal too much on that possibility,
"You know, discussions are on. It also requires some financial commmitments. With the budget that we have... of course, our Hon'ble chief minister has been very supportive, it's his vision that we are trying to implement..."
For now, though, the preparations are in full swing to be ready for one of the biggest sporting events that Odisha has ever held; the Hockey World Cup. Mr Dev detailed the infrastructure upgrades that have been carried out in the build up to this,
"We are building some new stands and two galleries in the North and South are being reshuffled. The capacity is being extended from 9,000 to 15,500. We also didn't have a proper lounge for officials and players, that is also being built. Our target was to finish constructions by 31st May so we can lay the turf in June and from July onwards some practice matches are hosted, we're on track for that... the craze for hockey in Odisha has grown. When we hosted the Hockey World League in December, it was amazing to see people watching games through heavy rains with umbrellas. 75-80 percent of the stadium was full despite the bad weather. At the World Cup, it's gonna be a packed stadium... there's been a tremendous response from fans. You'll have to come and see at a hockey match what kind of support the local fans provide. Even in football... Super Cup was the first major tournament we held, and as we host more competitions, you will again see a packed stadium."
But all this is happening at the highest level in each sporting discipline, under the spotlight. But behind the scene there's a larger initiative unfolding where the state government is reaching out to some of the under-privileged communities, especially the tribal population in the region, using sports as a tool. Mr Dev explained,
"Whichever sport the state has excelled in, one has seen that it's primarily the tribal boys and girls who have been doing very well, whether it's hockey or weight-lifting or athletics. And we have a large percentage of tribal population in Odisha, about 23 percent. So we came up with Tribal Sport Programme, for promotion of sport among tribals. It's primarily for the tribals to have... a better opportunity to showcase their talents, and to identify talented athletes among the community for further nurturing to become elite athletes at the international level. It's a grassroots-based programme that starts at the block level, which comprises of about 25 gram panchayats, and goes up to district and state level. There's been a lot of excitement and tremendous participation. Next month we're hosting the state level programme. Odisha is the first state to conceptualize a programme like this and it's been a great success."
And to make it all happen, there's also a programme in place to create infrastructure down to the grassroot level. Dev continued,
"In every gram panchayat there has to be a designated playground, at the block level there's a scheme called Mini Stadium. The state government gives a grant of Rs 20 lakhs, along with a contribution of Rs 5 lakhs from the MP or MLA. This goes to constructing a ground with galleries. At the second phase of this same programme there's a Rs 15 lakh grant to make a small indoor stadium as well along with a gym, changing rooms, toilets. The idea is whatever we're giving has to be complemented by funds coming from other sources. This is just a trigger, and some of the districts have done so well with it. And then at the district level we're working with something called an Integrated Sports Complex, which will have facilities for multiple sports including athletics, basketball courts, tennis. So at every level there's appropriate infrastructure being developed. Plus we are developing world class sports complexes in Rourkela, Sambalpur, Cuttack, Koraput, Bhubaneshwar, Behrampur and Jaipur. The Hon'ble CM has said that funds will not be a problem... we also have a scheme to send our top athletes aborad for training if they require."
Developing multiple sporting complexes within the state present an interesting possibility - of having a state league, especially in popular team sports like football or hockey. When asked if that was part of the plan, Mr Dev smiled,
"Of course, we've been thinking about that."
Although the Odisha government wants sports to take a larger spotlight in the state's cultures and societies, how effective can such a programme be given the over-emphasis on job-oriented academics that families push their children towards? Mr Dev answered,
"That's always been a problem with our country. If you come from a lower or middle class family, the first instinct is to have a secured future. But I think things are changing now. If you are a talented sportsperson who can compete at a high level, you are financially secure too. So gradually the perspective is changing regarding how kids should look at sports."
For now, there are other more imminent problems that the Department of Sports and Youth Affairs has to solve. Mr Dev listed a recent issue that they discovered,
"Out of the sixteen sports hostels we have we figured out that there's not a scientific distribution of sports among the hostels... the coaches were getting very thinly spread, just one coach per discipline for a particular hostel. So we've restructured to a three-tier model for each of these sports. For every discipline, let's say athletics, there has to be a hostel for beginners, another hostel catering to mid-level athletes and another for the top level athletes... so we can have at least three-four coaches for a particular hostel. This will bring about a lot more focus."
Nevertheless, the state has its hands full in terms of hosting major competitions, coming one after another without break,
"Right after Hockey World Cup we'll be hosting the Asian Junior Womens' Rugby Championship, it will be played on the main football pitch of the Kalinga Stadium. We also have a couple of other international hockey tournaments lined up... in February this year the President of the Indian Olympics Association said that if Mumbai is the financial capital of India, Bhubaneswar is the sports capital of the country. You'll see a tremendous amount of action in Bhubaneswar and other places in Odisha."
But one major spoilsport in all this is a factor that's beyond human control - the hot and humid weather of Bhubaneswar that was a major issue even during the Super Cup. Mr Dev acknowledged that they will need to be careful about scheduling tournaments in the summer,
"Like most of the country, April to June are a bit bad in terms of heat. July to September it rains, and October to March we have great weather. We will try to modify the events calendar suitably, but what happens is that it's difficult to change the dates of intenrational tournaments. Even aborad, for example in Europe, the weather differs month to month. So weather is not really a major problem. But yes, with the heat in these three months, we have to be very careful."
Given that many players had trouble giving their best in the Super Cup because of the weather, one can only hope that the sports scene in Odisha will preserve its heat only in the good sense; the metaphorical warmth of the competitive spirit rather than the literal temperature.