For several decades now it has been well understood that a country’s sporting success is a lagging indicator of its progress on economic & social indicators. Hence there is a lot to be proud about when we see India raking in 100+ medals at the latest edition of the Asian Games. However, amidst the national chest thumping which nowadays inevitably follows when an Indian garners global acclaim in his/her sport, we tend to overlook that beyond 10-15% of India’s 1.5 billion strong population, India is still one of the poorest countries in the world (in the bottom quintile of countries basis per capita income). As a result, for 90% of Indians, success in sports is something that they pursue against incredible odds. As Nootan Sharma & Raghav Bikhchandani write in this long read from The Print, “Odisha aspires to be India’s hockey factory, but its glitzy world-class tournaments are a world apart from underfunded grassroots centres in districts like Deogarh…

Deogarh got its sole Naval Tata Hockey Academy in January 2021 at Nutan Karadapal village. Hidden deep inside thick forests, this village is where hockey hero Roshan Minz honed his game. He also inaugurated the centre.

At the grassroots centre, around 175 players from four panchayats come to train and practice. They receive uniforms, sticks, and shoes from the academy and the services of three full-time coaches, including Bilas Ekka.

However, the academy lacks well-groomed grass practice grounds, let alone the type of high-tech synthetic turfs that the Federation of International Hockey (FIH) deems as the modern professional standard. During the monsoon season, the field turns to sludge, making it difficult to conduct more advanced tactical drills or master precise ball control.

“We can only give basic training routines to the players. There is no turf and when it rains it gets difficult to play here,” Ekka said. “Wherever we go to play, we get beaten because of the ground. There is a lot of difference between playing on grass and playing on clay ground.”

Though players now have some equipment, many still play barefoot…But despite the glorious precedent, the hockey players know that one misstep on uneven ground can crush their lifelong dreams.

“I don’t have shoes so I am playing in slippers. The coach has asked the DSO (district sports officer)m who assured us that he will do something. Everyone recognises our love for hockey but they overlook the limited resources we have,” said a player during a training drill, his feet completely covered in dust.”

Like in many other parts of India, in Odisha Indian politicians’ love of grand events, big statues & stadiums – which result in national and international media acclaim – gets in the way of basic infra being provided to those who need it: “The Odisha government, which hosted and sponsored the last two men’s Hockey World Cups, drastically increased its expenditure this year. In 2018, it spent Rs 66.98 crore on the tournament, but in 2023, it shelled out Rs 1,098 crore, a nearly 16-fold increase.

There are also concerns that the showy Rs 875.8 crore Birsa Munda hockey stadium in Rourkela could become a “white elephant” like Montreal’s Olympic Stadium and Manaus’s Arena Amazonas, underutilised when high-profile international matches are not in play.

Questions have also been raised about the quality of the quickly built hockey-related infra in Odisha, especially after a new 40-foot statue of a hockey player crashed to the ground in Rourkela in June.

Hockey is beloved across the state, but cities like Bhubaneswar and Rourkela have received the bulk of the funds, sponsorships, and infrastructural focus, deepening the rural-urban socioeconomic divide.”

Inspite of all this, several hockey players from rural Odisha have catapulted themselves to national stardom: “Sonia Kumari Topno has a dream. Hockey propelled her out of her impoverished village in Odisha’s Deogarh, and now she is sprinting towards her next goal: winning a spot on the Indian women’s team. She is confident because Deogarh hockey dreams have a way of coming true.

In her home district, hockey has turned into a passport out of despair and desolate poverty. More than Virat Kohli or Sachin Tendulkar, residents idolise homegrown talent turned hockey heavyweight Roshan Minz….

Both her brothers are just as passionate about hockey. One of them, Ashish, has even battled it out in two international clashes on the men’s turf.

Odisha has produced many hockey champions, but for Deogarh residents, there is no one like striker Roshan Minz.

Parents tell their children about how hockey catapulted him from poverty and kids want to be just like him. When he returns home and visits the Tata Naval grassroots centre, a crowd gathers and kids hanker to learn a few moves from him. 

Minz grew up watching his father drag-flicking and dribbling in local tournaments, chasing in his footsteps from the age of seven, using a wooden stick cut from a tree.

In 1998, he defied all odds, charging through gruelling trials to earn a coveted spot at the sports hostel in Rourkela. Despite limited resources and training, he competed for Odisha in state-level hockey for nearly a decade until his national selection.

His biggest moment in the international sun came in 2007 as a sprightly 19-year-old squad member in India’s title-winning Asia Cup campaign. Now 36, he works as an assistant manager at the Indian Oil Corporation and plays for its team at the domestic level.  He has a 3 BHK flat in Bhubaneswar, where he lives with his wife. His parents still reside in the village.

“It was difficult for us to get food in my struggling days, but hockey has changed my life completely. I want this for kids in my village. I always tell them to work hard,” he told ThePrint.”

Across India, a billion plus Indians – many of whom have been given a raw deal – now have a path set by role models in their communities. Regardless of what the authorities do or don’t do, hundreds of these Indians will go on to attain global success. If the authorities provide them the necessary infrastructure, the success will come quicker and the numbers attaining success will be in the thousands rather than the hundreds.

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