Home to one of the world’s biggest, newly constructed hockey stadiums; grounds for the 2023 Hockey World Cup starting January 13; private jets on hire; luxurious Olympics village; huge crowds and state-of-the-art sports infrastructure, Odisha is fast becoming the country’s sports epicentre.
Draped in a black, knee-length wrap-around cloth, his forehead and nose smeared in ash, the bear-chested, long-bearded baba (hermit) posed for a photo in the foreground of Odisha’s breathtakingly beautiful Sun Temple. His right hand rose, showing the victory sign and his head—carrying a neat bun tied in a string of rudrakshas (dried blueberry)—tilted to 45 degrees. A rockstar pose for a man who has vowed to live a simple life.
Elsewhere, inside the 13th Century temple’s complex, a group of senior women from a village in Gujarat, dressed in ghagra-choli, break into a spontaneous garba (a folk dance of the state), singing Gujarati folk songs, clapping in rhythm and moving in a circle, while hordes of other tourists stare at them, bewildered.
These amusing and delightful surprises are just a pre-cursor to my three-day trip in Odisha, during which I have several ‘That’s impressive!’ moments. The best being the state and its sports ministry’s initiatives to promote hockey in the country, nurture sports talent in the state—even in remote, rural areas—and host the 15th Men’s Hockey World Cup this year, from January 13 to 29.
Visit Odisha for
…2023 Hockey World Cup.
Odisha, the official sponsors of India’s national men’s and women’s hockey teams, is also the only venue in the history of world hockey to host the world tournament for the second consecutive time. The last one, the 14th world cup tournament, was held here in November 2018. The 15th edition this year promises to be bigger and better.
Odisha has spent approximately INR 261 crores to build the Birsa Munda Hockey Stadium Complex, one of the world’s largest hockey stadiums in the world. It comes with a seating capacity of 20,000! Built in India’s hockey nursery Sundargarh district, Rourkela, the stadium was complete in just one-and-a-half years. The craze for the sport here is almost unprecedented. Long, serpentine queues for the tournaments’ tickets outside the newly constructed, lotus-shaped stadium and Bhubaneswar’s Kalinga—the two venues of the coveted tournament—are an everyday site. During the state’s trophy tour, the revered cup was greeted by large crowds, folk dances, music performances and loud cheers.
Thanks to Odisha government’s sustained efforts for over a decade to promote and nurture hockey and bring back its lost glory, the stadiums are expected to be packed for all 45 matches of the tournament, giving a huge momentum to the state’s tourism as well. “The huge crowds here make it very exciting for the international teams to play here as well,” says a state sports tourism official.
At Rourkela, a city with no airport, the state government has repaired two air strips and rented smaller jets to fly players to and fro from the Kalinga Stadium to Birsa Munda, where 20 of the 45 total matches of the tournament will be held. The state government has also built a 225-room Olympics village in Sundargarh to accommodate the participating teams—Australia, Belgium, Netherlands, India, Argentina, Germany, New Zealand, England, France, Korea, Malaysia, Spain, South Africa, Japan, Chile and Wales, says R Vineel Krishna, IAS special secretary to Chief Minister and commissioner-cum-secretary of the Sports and Youth Services Department, Government of Odisha.
When I visit the second venue, the state-of-the-art Kalinga Stadium, the excitement for the upcoming tournament is palpable. The national sub-junior and junior hockey teams’ girls—Amisha Kullu (15), Janhbai Bada (14), Drupati Naik (14), Laxmi Chik (18), Kamla Singh (19) and Ahalya Lakra (14)—are excited to show me their skills, and conduct a small workshop for me. Lesson one: how to hold the hockey stick right; lesson two: how to pass the ball; and lesson three: how to dribble. Even after my best efforts, I don’t even come close to these girls’ skills! But their simplicity, humility and discipline is touching.
Many children have left their homes at a young age to train at Odisha government’s special Panposh hostels. Here talented young boys and girls are coached in hockey by experts, in association with many corporates. The athletes here not only spend hours training, but also pursue academic education alongside. “In Sundargarh, where many of us come from, hockey is a game that all of us play, right from when we are kids,” says Chik.
In the backyard of their homes, maidans, gardens, school grounds, the boys and girls here play hockey wherever and whenever. To give these kids a real chance to play the game professionally, the state government has built 17 astro turfs in the district for them to play on.
After a day on field, it is time for quiet contemplation at the Konark Eco Retreat by the pristine Puri beach with crystal-clear waters and sand so clean, you can create a perfect video of sprinkling the granules in slow-mo without ever needing a tissue to wipe your hands off thereafter. When at this three-month, temporary set-up for the winters, you can step out from your comfortable glamping tents straight onto to the beach to watch the perfect sunrise. And guess what? The food served is delicious, too!
These tranquil retreats with uninterrupted views of sunrise and sunsets are the best place to live while you catch a game of hockey, the most exciting sporting event in the country.
All photographs courtesy of Riddhi Doshi
Related: We Discovered One Of Odisha’s Best-Kept Secrets: Eco Retreat Konark