Odisha’s rise as a shining example for sports infra
Odisha’s massive investment in sport infrastructure goes beyond Bhubaneswar and is spread across the state.
Since the phone call, more of an SOS, and what happened thereafter encapsulates Odisha’s support for sport, it needs to be told first. Its finances in a shambles, Hockey India (HI) had asked a top government official in Odisha to bail it out for three months. Not the state but the corporates invested in it. Confident that the short-term fix would be approved, the official took it to the chief minister.
“Can’t we do something more,” Naveen Patnaik had asked. Okay, let’s look at sponsorship for six months or maybe even a year, the official thought as he called for another meeting with his team. It was there that the proposal of Odisha sponsoring the men’s and women’s hockey teams was floated. And nearly shot down immediately. Should the state even think of supporting the national teams? Isn’t that what corporates do? There were no clear answers, till the chief minister intervened with an anecdote.
When Naveen Patnaik’s father Biju Patnaik, the former chief minister of Odisha, was in jail as a freedom fighter, India were winning Olympics gold in hockey. It made Indians proud and added to the nationalist fervour, the father had told the son. “There should be no doubt in our mind that we are supporting the national game,” the current chief minister had said.
Odisha became HI’s partner in 2018. India ended a 41-year wait for an Olympic medal in 2021 and the women’s team finished a heart-breaking fourth. Odisha’s relationship with HI has been extended until 2033 and is said to be worth ₹50 crore annually.
When VK Pandian, the official referred to above, was narrating the story, he was in a lounge whose large glass panels overlooked the Kalinga Sports Complex’s synthetic turf which had hosted the men’s hockey World Cup earlier in the year. The complex also has a football and athletics stadium, high performance centres for tennis, aquatics, shooting, badminton and gymnastics. A sports science centre with cryotherapy and altitude training chambers and laboratories that work on gait, posture and rehabilitation has been built in collaboration with Abhinav Bindra Targeting Performance, the brainchild of India’s first individual Olympic gold medallist. An indoor athletics centre, the largest in South Asia, will be inaugurated soon.
Sprinter Amlan Borgohain, Asian Games hurdles silver medallist Jyothi Yarraji and Neeraj Chopra, India’s only Olympic gold medallist in athletics, are among those who have used the facilities that have been praised by Arsene Wenger, FIFA’s chief of global football development, and Igor Stimac, head coach of the India men’s football team. Vineel Krishna, secretary-sports and youth services, said his team wanted to make the complex the best in the country.
Odisha’s investment in sport goes beyond Bhubaneswar, which also has the academy run by FIFA and All India Football Federation. The Birsa Munda International Hockey Stadium in Rourkela can hold 20,011 and is the world’s largest all-seater hockey stadium. Along with it, a five-star sports village complete with parking facilities and 225 rooms was built for the World Cup. It will be converted into a hotel in the steel town. Cuttack has an indoor stadium; there are 10 regional sports complexes, 25 hockey training centres built at a cost of ₹200 crore, 90 multi-purpose indoor stadia and a government college for physical education.
In 2017 with Jharkhand not ready, Odisha hosted the Asian Athletics Championship, getting ready from scratch in 90 days. “Our principle is that when we conduct state championships, the facilities should be of national standard, national events should have international standard facilities, and when we do international events, we should set some benchmarks,” said Krishna.
The state partners ISL club Odisha FC and has an Ultimate Kho Kho franchise which won the league last year, supports national women’s rugby teams and is likely to pick up the tab for the Kalinga Super Cup football tournament scheduled in January. Odisha’s sports budget in 2023-24 is ₹1300 crore, the highest in India. It was ₹4 crore in 2000-01.
“In one of his speeches, he (Naveen Patnaik) mentioned that if the Indian flag goes up in the Olympic podium, 140 crore people will walk one inch taller that day,” said Pandian. “Our CM wanted that Odisha should contribute in this expression of youth power to the world.”
A member of the Biju Janata Dal, the state’s ruling party, Pandian, 49, is a former IAS officer. He is also a former 3000m runner who trained at the Neyveli Sports Hostel in Tamil Nadu. For his pre-dawn visits to project sites, Pandian was known as “4am officer”. And he is still known for going on 5am runs.
“I failed as an athlete but the passion for sports has helped me help more athletes,” said Pandian. In his time, Pandian said, a pole-vault coach trained middle-distance runners. You don't have a straightforward solution in sports, said Pandian, so to create the right ecosystem, the state government has partnered with corporates for its high-performance centres. “In a regimented system subjected to audit,” where the lowest rate is accepted, getting the best coaches, software and support staff can be difficult, he said.
To encourage grassroots participation, work orders are issued to build concrete houses for athletes chosen to state sports hostels who don’t have one. “The entire village gets to know this kid did well in sports and got a house,” said Pandian.
Sport, he said, also helped him foray into areas once notorious for being insurgency hotbeds. As district collector in Mayurbhanj in the aughts, Pandian said he would keep footballs in his vehicle and give them to children. Their parents too were happy and “so, one of the entry points was sport”.
Along with disaster management and fiscal management, Odisha has now set a benchmark in sport infrastructure. “If we invest, we will get Olympic medals in 8-12 years,” said Pandian. The process will continue till India gets a lot of gold medals in the Olympics, he said.