Has Bhubaneswar arrived as a major sports hub?

The organisers must have been pleasantly surprised. With rains lashing the city almost all day on Friday, empty stands at the Kalinga Stadium, the venue for the ongoing Hockey World League (HWL), would have been entirely along expected lines notwithstanding the fact that it was the semi-final of the marquee event. Instead, it was a sea of umbrellas in the stands as the players of India and Argentina battled it out in the open amid incessant rain on a pitch that was more suited for floating paper boats than a hockey match. It was a heartening scene in a city not exactly known as a sports loving place.

And no, it was not just the fact that the home team was playing that brought the people out of the warmth and comfort of home. Even the England-Netherland match for the 7th/8th position earlier in the evening saw well over a 1000 people watching it under the umbrella. It was at once amusing and heartwarming to see the cheerleaders, who have become such an integral part of major sporting events these days, in rain coats sashay to the beats of popular Bollywood numbers. The spirited ball boys from the Panposh sports hostel did a splendid job of mopping up excess water from the ground with their super soakers.

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Not far away from the Kalinga Stadium, publishers and booksellers at the Rajadhani Book Fair were cursing the rain gods for their untimely visit that prevented people from coming to the venue. This morning, my neighbourhood thelawala was complaining that a lot of his stuff went waste last evening because people just did not turn up for their customary share of bara, alu chap. All of this makes the attendance at the Kalinga Stadium all the more creditable.

So has Bhubaneswar finally come of age as a sports venue?

Despite the visible enthusiasm during the WHL – and in earlier events like Indian Hockey League (IHL) and the 22nd Asian Athletics earlier this year – the answer to this question lies in the future. We have to wait and see if the novelty factor – the thrill of watching an important international sporting event close to home – that is drawing the crowds. In a country that is passionate only about cricket, it remains to be seen how long the spectator interest endures since staging of an international cricket match in the Capital City is an extremely remote possibility given the fact that the Barabati Stadium is so close and has the zealous backing of the Odisha Cricket Association (OCA). Sporting cities did not build their reputation overnight and it would be foolhardy to hail the emergence of Bhubaneswar as a national/ international sporting hub as yet.

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Then there is the question of infrastructure – not just inside the stadium but in the city as a whole – that would be required to sustain Bhubaneswar’s position as a sports venue. It goes without saying that as of now, the facilities are not adequate. As retired senior administrator Prasanna Mishra has pointed out very pertinently, there is a shortage of hotel rooms to accommodate those who come from outside – not just players and officials, but also spectators who may come to watch major events like the Hockey World Cup next year. For once, the government appears to have geared up to create and provide the necessary infrastructural facilities inside the stadium as well as outside. Private players can be roped in to create the required accommodation facilities.

Third, sportspersons from Odisha have to excel in various disciplines to sustain spectator interest in the long run. One of the reasons hockey events at Kalinga Stadium have drawn sizeable crowds is the fact that the teams – both in IHL and in HWL – have two, three or more players from Odisha. Our athletes to have to do well at the national and international events for people to throng to the Kalinga Stadium to cheer them. For that to happen, we have to lay far greater emphasis on grooming our athletes than we have done so far. On its part, the state government too has to treat this with the same seriousness that it has shown while bidding for and hosting international sporting events.

There is, however, no denying the fact that a good beginning has been made. And it all depends on how well we build on this beginning to make Bhubaneswar a permanent venue in any international sporting fixture.

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