At the just-concluded Hockey Men’s World League Final at Bhubaneswar, there was ample praise from officials for the conduct of the tournament. Comparison with the Champions Trophy 2014, which also I attended, makes the change in organising principles clear.
In 2014, the Kalinga Stadium was new. The organisers were testing their mettle in a zone of uncertainty, and the spectators were more curious than committed. Bringing international hockey to a city that lacked a global reputation was novel, and it showed.
In 2014, I was witness to stands that were only partly filled up for the morning league games. Those spectators were mostly school children in uniform. Looking at them, we might have been forgiven for thinking the event was a communist leadership’s show of power in a public space.
In 2014, the approach to the Kalinga Stadium had a trickle of spectators, and there was not the loud and bold statement that an elite sporting contest should make. There were no festoons or food stalls, nor other merchandise on display. There was some music, in the form of the signature International Hockey Federation (FIH) tune during corners, and the iconic Chak De India song, and Indie pop motivational songs. There was little to showcase local culture.
At the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, India’s goalkeeper, AB Subbaiah, had told me how hockey in Europe was fun. Venues were for families, where children tried their hand at hockey, and spectators appreciated good play all around. India’s play was appreciated whenever the team played in Europe. Everybody had a day out.
I noticed the same festive atmosphere during a visit to the 2015 World League Semi-Final at Antwerp. Eateries, bands and spectators out to enjoy outdoors made for a relaxed and cheery atmosphere.
This had been the missing piece of the jigsaw at the 2014 Champions Trophy at Bhubaneswar.
But in 2017, at the World League Final, the stadium was transformed. Being the home ground of the Hockey India League’s Kalinga Lancers, the organisers had gained international experience, and shown quick reflexes in embracing the FIH’s vision of making hockey bold and loud. The sustained build up had been filled with the symbolism and statements of an international event.
The Odisha government had smelt an opportunity to showcase the state’s rich culture — from the Odissi performance and film on Odisha tourism at the opening ceremony, to hip Odia pop songs, to a trilingual commentator equally at ease in English, Hindi and Odia. NBA or IPL-style cheerleaders filled in the silences during pauses in games. Spectators got involved.
This time around, the entire city was filled with hoardings welcoming the World League. At the stadium the crowds swelled and yelled, even when India were not playing. Up to 9,000 people were in attendance, in mostly cool weather.
On 8 December, even in pouring rain, 7,000 spectators turned up. They cheered every team, and embraced the home team as only a child can embrace its mother. The applause for the defeated German team in the bronze medal game against India was noteworthy.
This surprisingly knowledgeable crowd understood hockey’s nuances. But people with no knowledge of hockey also attended. I heard many comments on the play from those next to me, not so well informed, but involved regardless.
The main point was the fun of it all. It was a day’s family outing, just the way it is in Europe. There were eateries, Boyanika sari stalls, and other merchandise. This had not been the case at the National Stadium in Delhi, where I have seen many world-level hockey tournaments.
Bhubaneswar has piled the evidence to its claim to being one of India’s fast-growing sports hubs. South Korea came with their coach and team for practice games. Malaysian coach Stephen Van Huizen, who also attended, told me: “Bhubanewar has fantastic crowds and atmosphere.”
Subbaiah voiced praise: “Odisha has a very sports-conscious chief minister who knows the pulse of the people. The stadium gets upgraded in a timely manner for each tournament. Odisha is at the forefront of hockey. When teams need infrastructure facilities, it is given any time.”
The governance too was good: “I was the manager of Kalinga Lancers. We got whatever we asked for. The chairman and managing director of Odisha Tourism Development Corporation helped us. There is lesser interference in technical matters,” Subbaiah asserted.
Jason McCracken, chief executive officer of the FIH, who measures his language with customised rigour, told me: “India are outstanding hosts. As a referee, I’ve been here many times. This is the best reception I’ve seen anywhere in India. The crowd is very knowledgeable. This was the best opening ceremony ever in hockey anywhere. The World Cup promises to be even bigger.”
Bhubaneswar will be happy with such ringing endorsements. With a track record of hosting the Asian Athletics Championships 2017 in 90 days, the city deserves the accolades. Hockey India’s decision to take the sport to its catchment areas has been spot on.
Jitendra Nath Misra is a former ambassador to Portugal and Laos, and vice president of Jawaharlal Nehru Hockey Tournament Society
Updated Date: Dec 12, 2017 09:12 AM