Interview Times had a great opportunity to converse with the Honorable Minister of Sports and Youth Service, Shri Tusharkanti Behera. In an exclusive interview, Shri Tusharkanti Behera gave insights about the growth of sports in Odisha in the last decade and how the department of sports will excel in the following years. Also, he talked about the overall scenario of sports in Odisha in the pandemic laden 2020. Moreover, he also conversed about making Odisha FC the best in the ISL in upcoming years.
This is how the interview went-
How 2020 has fared for sports in Odisha?
2020 started on a high note with the FIH Pro League, followed by a few matches of ISL in 2019-2020. After that, Odisha hosted the inaugural edition of the Khelo India University Games 2020, which saw over 3500 athletes from over 150 universities participate. It turned out to be a celebration of sports and culture and set a benchmark for the University Games’ subsequent editions.
When relaxation was announced and SOPs issued by the Sports Authority of India, Odisha became the first state to resume elite athletes’ training. It brought in a wave of hope and positivity. The cadets of our Hockey High-Performance Centre, the Naval Tata Hockey Academy Odisha, were thrilled to be back on the blue turf. Later this year, we had the national camps for Indian Arrows and the National team of elite Javelin throwers, that include Neeraj Chopra and Shivpal Singh, who have qualified for the Olympics.
India’s 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifying game against Qatar, scheduled for March 26, here in Odisha, was postponed, and so was the much-awaited event of Football in Odisha, the FIFA U 17 Women’s’ World Cup. 5 FIFA standard pitches were however ready to host the event. It was disheartening for the sports enthusiast, especially the ardent Football fans, but FIFA decided to postpone the pandemic situation.
We have always been driven by our Hon’ble Chief Minister’s vision, “Sports for youth, youth for future.” We used this period to strengthen our sports ecosystem, especially the sports infrastructure, to make sports inclusive and accessible for grassroots talents; to identify, nurture, train, and assist them transition to the elite level.
We launched our Shooting High-Performance Centre, the Odisha Aditya Birla Gagan Narang Shooting High-performance Centre, a 10m range that will nurture and train young and promising shooters from the state. Additionally, essential sports facilities were launched in Ganjam. Several other infrastructure projects have commenced across districts.
Odisha has been at the forefront of promoting sports, not just within the state but also at the national level. We have supported Football and Hockey, and with Rugby gaining popularity and the state having a strong potential decided to further the sport of Rugby. We signed an agreement with Rugby India to sponsor the national teams for three years till 2023. This will help develop the sport of Rugby further in Odisha and India and support and strengthen the high-performance training of the Indian national rugby teams.
This year our ace sprinter, Dutee Chand, was conferred with the coveted Arjuna Award. Here, in Odisha, para-athlete Jayanti Behera was conferred with the prestigious Biju Patnaik’ Sportsperson of the Year’ award.
What were the biggest challenges faced by sports academics and the department during the lockdown times?
In March, once the nationwide lockdown was imposed due to the Corona pandemic, Educational institutions, including hostels, had to close. The health of our athletes, especially our Sports hostels inmates and those at our High-Performance Centres, was paramount. We had to close down our facilities. We ensured our athletes were home and safe. We used that period to engage them and motivate them through virtual sessions. Coaches were aligned with SAI and other educative sessions through the online medium.
Once lockdown was relaxed, we issued detailed SOPs as per the Central Government guidelines across our sports facilities. Our elite athletes resumed training at the Kalinga Stadium, and we planned the resumption of training across the Sports complex and facilities, in a phased manner.
All Covid-19 protocols are being followed during coaching, including daily thermal screening and periodic sanitization of playfield/pitch and residential complexes. For Swimming, swimmers had to resort to strength and conditioning training.
As mentioned earlier, pandemic upended the sporting calendar. We, however, took this as an opportunity to focus on our grassroots program and sports infrastructures.
Not only we are coming towards the end of the year, but it is also going to be the end of a decade. How have sports in Odisha (apart from cricket) blossomed during this decade?
This decade has truly redefined sports in Odisha. Our state has emerged as the Sports Hub of the country.
The state set unprecedented benchmarks. Noteworthy initiatives include-
1- The only state to have a team in the Hockey Indian league, the Kalinga Lancers. Kalinga Stadium, which boasts of world-class infrastructure, hosted the league matches of the tournament. Later, Kalinga Lancers went on to become champions of the HIL in 2017.
2- The 22nd Asian Athletics Championships 2017, Asia’s flagship event organized by the Asian Athletics Federation, was held in record 90 days and put Odisha on the global map. The opening ceremony saw a floodlit 15,000 capacity stadium packed to the brim. Kalinga Stadium went through a massive transformation in record time. All eyes were on Odisha. Synthetic tracks were laid in the main stadium and the warm-up area along with three lakh square feet of grass turfing in and around the stadium with additional 5,000 new seats for the spectators. Accolades came from none other than the world athletics federation president, Sebastian Coe, who praised the state-of-the-art facility. We hosted over 650 top athletes from 41 countries.
3- The grandeur of the 2018 Men’s Hockey World in Bhubaneswar and the scale at which it was organized has dazzled the Hockey fraternity. We are now proud to host the Men’s World Cup for a second consecutive time in 2023. Odisha will once again take center stage during the World Cup with its largest hockey stadium with 20,000 capacity that will offer the most remarkable experience for players and spectators alike.
4- Odisha drew applause from all quarters as it became the first state ever to sponsor the National Hockey Teams for five years. We recently also signed an agreement with Rugby India to sponsor the national Rugby teams till 2023. It is also the first state to support the team Odisha FC in the ISL.
5- Odisha was the first state to organize the Tribal Sports Meet, a first of its kind in the country exclusively for members of the tribal community. It was a remarkable feat.
6- Set precedence and created a hub of High-Performance Centres. Odisha signed MoUs with leading corporates and eminent sports personalities in November 2018 to set up High-performance Centres(HPCs) in sports disciplines where Odisha is doing well or has the potential to excel. Doing so became the first in the country to create a hub of HPCs to strengthen its growing and evolving sporting landscape. Today, we have nine operational HPCs (Hockey, Swimming, Football, Athletics, Sport Climbing, Weightlifting, Shooting, Sports Science and a Centre of Excellence in Sports management)
7- To further strengthen the hockey ecosystem, synthetic hockey turf will be developed in each of the 17 blocks of Sundargarh district, considered the cradle of Hockey in the state, which has commenced. This initiative will redefine the sports in that region.
8- This period featured high decibel hockey events, including the FIH Hockey World League 2017, Champions Trophy 2014, Men’s Hockey World Cup 2018, FIH Men’s Series Finals 2019, FIH Olympic Hockey Qualifiers 2019, and the FIH Pro League in 2020. And over these tournaments, the Hockey fever caught up amongst sports fans. They would throng the galleries, bracing all weathers, to cheer for the teams. Odisha is today reckoned as the nerve center of Hockey.
In addition to these, we have also hosted international events across disciplines, including the 2019 Hero Super Cup, ISL Cup, Asia Rugby 7s U18 Girls Championship 2018, 58th Open Athletics meet 2018, and the 21stCommonwealth Table Tennis Championships 2019. Besides hosting marquee events and developing international standard infrastructure for key disciplines like Athletics, Hockey, Football, sportspersons from Odisha have also excelled over the years and brought laurels for the country. Many have made it to national teams, including Hockey, Football, and Rugby. This year, Sprinter Dutee Chand was conferred with Arjuna Award.
These have collectively redefined sports in Odisha.
How do we see the culture of sports evolving in Odisha in the next decade?
It is noteworthy to mention that the scenario of sports is changing and evolving in Odisha. The approach towards sports as a career has also been positive. We are developing a robust sports system that includes world-class infrastructure, sports academies, High-Performance Centres using which we will assist our athletes in their pursuit of sporting excellence. Earlier, it was about participation; now, it is about winning. The young crop of athletes is more determined and spirited than ever before, and we are committed to creating the right facilities and training opportunities to better their performance. We see a lot more athletes from Odisha excelling in the coming years.
We also have projects in the pipeline for community sports.
Does Odisha have any plans of hosting ISL and IPL in the future?
With world-class infrastructure and allied facilities, Odisha has already hosted a few matches of ISL in 2019-2020, where Odisha FC made its debut at the Kalinga Stadium. If not for the pandemic, Odisha FC would be playing their home matches at Kalinga Stadium for ISL 2020-2021. In the upcoming years, we want to provide the best facility to Odisha FC for making it the numero uno team of ISL.