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As Tokyo Olympics marks the revival of hockey in India, read how Odisha’s Sundergarh district has become the ‘Cradle of Indian Hockey’

In the last few years, Odisha has emerged as the new home of Indian hockey, with the Sundergarh region as its epicentre. The resource-rich region has produced five national captains of the Indian hockey team and over 60 international players.

The remarkable performance of the Indian Hockey Team, both men and women contingent, in the Tokyo Olympics 2020 has reignited a passion for the national sport in the minds of Indians. The entry of both men’s and women’s hockey teams into the Olympics semifinals has been an overwhelming feeling for most of the Indians as it comes after a hiatus of more than four decades.

Well, the success of India’s hockey after decades of continued failure is an exciting tale in itself. Half a century ago, Indians were the world champion and dominated the world hockey scene, winning as many as eight gold medals, the last one coming in the 1980 Moscow Olympics.

Since then, the game had lost much of its popularity in the country owing to several reasons, one being the lack of support of the Indian Hockey team. With dwindling support for the sport, the players lost the motivation to win major titles. As years went by, nothing substantial was achieved.

However, the entry of the Odisha government to support the sport changed the story of hockey forever. The Odisha government-led by Naveen Patnaik, took an interest in reviving the country’s national game and gave the game a much-needed push to make the country a champion side as it was four decades ago. When nobody in the country showed any passion or interest to support its national sport, including Hockey India, it was the Odisha government-led by Naveen Patnaik that stepped in to save the sport.

Indian Hockey’s success is led by the Odisha government

In 2018, the Sahara Group abruptly ended its sponsorship deal with Hockey India. It was supposed to run until 2021, but the troubles faced by the company meant that it could no longer sponsor the team. After Sahara’s exit, the Odisha government took over the mantle of sponsorship of the Indian national hockey teams both in the junior and senior levels. The Odisha government invested around Rs.150 crore to support the national game and stepped in to sponsor the men’s and women’s hockey teams over the next five years.

This was the first time that a state government had come in to sponsor a national sporting team. 

Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik had then remembered how Hockey was an integral part of Odisha’s tribal and also a way of life in his state’s tribal region, adding that children learned to walk with hockey sticks in Odisha.

A few months later, the Odisha government joined hands with the Tata group to set up the Odisha Naval Tata Hockey High-Performance Centre (HPC) at Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneswar. The idea was to groom the future sporting talents in hockey and produce world-class sportspersons.

In 2017, the Odisha government also sponsored the Kalinga Lancers club that won the Hockey India League in January. A year later, Odisha also hosted Hockey World League in December 2018 at the Bhubaneswar’s Kalinga Stadium. The following year, the Naveen Patnaik-led government also hosted FIH Men’s Series Finals and Olympic Hockey Qualifiers 2019 and even the FIH Pro League in 2020.

In 2023, Bhubaneswar and Rourkela will again host the World Cup Hockey for Men for the second time. In Rourkela of Sundergarh district, the Patnaik government is building the country’s biggest hockey stadium with a seating capacity for 20,000 spectators that will be named after tribal leader Birsa Munda. To further strengthen the hockey ecosystem in Sundergarh, Odisha is also planning to lay a synthetic hockey turf in each of the 17 blocks of the district.

Sundegarh – the Hockey Capital of India

In the last few years, Odisha has emerged as the new home of Indian hockey, with the Sundergarh region as its epicentre. Located in the heartland of Maoist Red-corridor – Sundergarh has become the ‘Cradle of Indian Hockey’. The resource-rich region has produced five national captains of the Indian hockey team and over 60 international players.

It is believed that hockey was introduced in Sundergarh by the European missionaries who came to the tribal region in the 1860s. The European missionaries often organised hockey matches as part of their extracurricular activities. Thus, for centuries now, hockey has become an integral part of the life of tribals in the Chotanagpur Plateau, an area that includes southern Jharkhand, the Sundergarh region of Odisha and Jashipur of Chhattisgarh.

Some believe that the natural soil and rock in the limestone belt of Chotanagour plateau, with its abundance in calcium percentage, strengthens the bones of the people in this area and makes them energetic, making them perfect for playing hockey.

The sport is now a cultural identity for various tribes such as Orams, the Kharia, the Munda and the Bhuniya communities. Even aged people in these tribal villages can be seen playing hockey. The game introduced by Christian missionaries over centuries ago has now seeped into their culture.

Interestingly, there are many local customs and traditions attached to the sport. For example, the “Prem Bhoj” events are traditional celebrations in which the family of the groom contests against the team from the bride side in a hockey tournament. The winner takes home a Khasi (goat), chicken or eggs as a prize. The Goat Cup or the Khasi Cup has become a prominent cultural identity of tribes in Odisha recently.

After Sansarpur in Jalandhar, Punjab, Sundergarh is becoming the most important centre of Indian hockey lately. It has produced five national team captains — Dilip Tirkey, Ignace Tirkey and Prabodh Tirkey in the men’s team and Subhadra Pradhan and Jyoti Sunita Kulu in the women’s team. In addition, it has also produced more than 60 international hockey players, including Olympians Lazarus Barla, William Xalco, Birendra Lakra and Sunita Lakra. 

Three players from Sundergarh – one women hockey player (Deep Grace Ekka) and two men players (Amit Rohidas and Birendra Lakra) have made it to the Tokyo Olympics 2021.

Sundergarh now has three hockey academies which includes a sports hostel in Panposh, Rourkela, built in the year 1984 that provides training for talented youngsters. Later, two training centres and hostels were developed at Sundergarh by the Sports Authority of India and the Odisha government that helped players participate in the national championships.

These training centres and hostels of Sundergarh have produced more than 12,000 national hockey players, with around 10,000 of them earning their livelihoods through sports quota government jobs in Railways, PSUs, banks, Odisha police department and some even in the armed forces.

 

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Staff reporter at OpIndia

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