Something to hold on to: Dilip Tirkey speaks of love for India’s Tokyo achievement and Odisha’s hockey revolution | Tokyo Olympics News
It's rather noticeable that he's struggling to emote. He wants to say something that'll convey how proud and happy he is for Indian hockey; how proud he is for Odisha backing Indian hockey. How proud he is as an ex-India player and captain. How proud he feels right now. He's looking for the perfect way to emote.
In that, he struggles. He weeps, he smiles, he laughs, he thinks and at times he just goes silent. He keeps grappling for words that, he thinks, if he conveys, will help people understand.
"We now have something to hold on to," he says in Hindi, joining words to make a sentence. That sentence is pure emotion. (Okay, just talk. I'll translate, I say). "We have something to hold on to".
'We' is not Odisha and its Chief Minister, not me and not Tirkey; not he and the hockey fraternity. 'We', he feels the need to convey, is 'India'. It's the Indian jersey he wore with pride for 15 long years, played 412 matches and won - among other accolades - an Asian Games gold.
There's a window that adorns his office room at Odisha's High Performance Centre for hockey at the Kalinga Stadium in Bhubaneshwar. Right outside that window, you can see a stand that has 'ODISHA' painted in white on seats that make for a sea of red.
" Dilip bhai, woh 'I' ke saamne khade ho jao (Dilip, brother, just stand before that 'I'", the photographer tells him. The 'I' in Odisha. He smiles. Yes, that'll look good. It'll convey in all sincerity the Odisha he wants to convey.
Indian hockey has 'done well'. People will 'get it'. He's proud. He doesn't have to think of words. They'll know now.
"Let me remind you, in 1982, India lost the Asian Games final 1-7 to Pakistan. That day, the whole country was in tears. And today, after 41 years, the entire country is smiling. This to my mind is progress. We needed a win. By win, I mean, victory of a certain consequence. A medal, a podium finish -- something to hold on to. We have it now," he says. He's just emoting. The words flow. His mind is reeling back to those years of struggle and desperation. The hurt, pent up for years, is healing. 1-7 to Pakistan had hurt.
"This bronze medal has given India the much-needed confidence that we can survive and win in modern hockey too", he says.
Two things are at the top of his mind. India's long struggle to "belong" and Odisha's love for the game and "wanting to belong". Both, in Tirkey's view, have reached a tipping point of sorts.
"In 2018, when Odisha hosted the hockey world cup, few would've guessed how it was just the beginning of a very wonderful journey. I remember, you couldn't get tickets for matches because that was the kind of rush. The queue to buy tickets would be 300-400 metres long. I had not seen that happening in India in a very long time," he recollects.
It was a time when the state had just about begun investing in Indian hockey. It was largely a result of the region's association with the sport, the rich legacy of Sundergarh and partly due to the Chief Minister's passion. Naveen Patnaik had been a hockey goalkeeper during his days at the Doon, where he was a classmate of, among others, the incorrigible Sanjay Gandhi. Mick Jagger and Jacqueline Kennedy, for the record, are the 'kinds' he used to spend time with before returning to India in the late 90s. He's the son of the legendary Biju Patnaik.
Odisha loves him and so does Tirkey, given the state's largesse. Heck, so does Indian hockey.
For those who know Patnaik insist, "read up a bit of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Freud, Keats and Blake, before you go to him". Fiction, philosophy or life, Patnaik's known to have a 'taste' for finer things.
The state this Chief Minister has ruled for more than two decades now, with absolute authority, is one that's crowded with tribal. A sport the tribal know better than any other is hockey. Tirkey is part of that crowd. He loves the sport and he loves the state. The state loves Patnaik. There's bonding. Left in, right out, goal.
"I would particularly like to thank our chief minister for supporting the game so amazingly. There was recently a time when Indian hockey was going through its share of struggles. Sponsors weren't coming, the ecosystem was in need of handholding and that wasn't happening. That's when Shri Naveen Patnaik stepped forward, not only as a sponsor but a guiding light. The World Cup that Odisha conducted ensured that the craze for Indian hockey, which had got buried for multiple reasons over so many years, has returned," Tirkey says.
For years, he rightly points out, youngsters have been putting in the hard work. Authorities have been doing their bit. Sponsors have been around. "So, there's hardly doubt that hockey as a sport has been much loved. What's been missed, I think, is that something you look to hold on to".
'Hold on to...' is the storyline. Hold on to this achievement.
"There has been this prevailing doubt for more than two decades now if we'll ever get close again to winning an Olympic medal. If we'll ever belong in the space that we once ruled. That doubt has been cleared now. After a very long time, even if momentary, a wave of happiness has swept across this country. This has happened after a long time... So, obviously, it's not going to disappear in a hurry," he says.
Patience is what Tirkey has held on to for a very long time. That patience, while he doesn't really say it, but looks like it had been playing on his mind, has delivered a result.
"We've lost in cricket too, right? But the interest-levels never dipped. Why? Because the sport has enjoyed the pan-India support-system on all fronts - be it corporate, politicians, fans, sponsors, movie-stars... they've all supported the sport and been vocal about it. Hockey needed that. That's what happened in Odisha. The state's leading politician came forward to support it. Corporate India decided to come forward because the Chief Minister himself wanted to tend to it. There was an effort to get a bit of star-power on board (Shahrukh Khan attended the World Cup). Fans rushed to the ground. The event was organised very well. These are things that matter. We may agree or not. But I feel they matter," he says.
He would know. How many in this country know of Sundargarh's contribution to Indian hockey? Shahrukh Khan can perhaps convey, if he tweets it to his 41.odd million followers on Twitter. It's important.
"You see... Indian hockey doesn't just need a sponsor. You, come, cut a cheque and think you've done your bit - that's not enough. The sponsor also needs to be a mentor, guide and a benefactor in more ways than one. Only then will the journey be a fruitful one. Look at the Odisha-Naval Tata High Performance Centre for hockey here. Look at the way they're nurturing the ecosystem. Sponsorship alone can't achieve this," says Tirkey.
There's advanced training, guidance from good coaches, all the amenities that any growing athlete needs - such as biomechanics, rehab centres, swimming pools, jogging parks, astro-turf, state-of-the-art gymnasiums. Dutch hockey legend Floris Jan Bovelander, who was part of the 1996 Atlanta gold medal winning team, has set up the coaching manual.
"The government is laying down 17 astro-turfs with synthetic sand in the region. What it'll do is give kids the basic amenities to pursue the game right from the beginning. If you give the kids an opportunity to play on astro-turfs at a very young age, look at the advantages... they begin learning the right way, there's greater enthusiasm to play the game, you're growing up within the parameters that define modern-hockey. The benefits are immense. There's a huge difference between running on a normal field and running on an astro-turf. The latter can really test an athlete's stamina. In fact, if you look at it, this is one of the biggest reasons why Indian hockey suffered for years over the last 20 to 30 years. There was a great amount of mismatch between our love for the game and what we were doing to earn that love," says Tirkey.
He's right. Wherever you are in this country right now, and not in Odisha, think of where's the nearest you can head to an astro-turf with a stick and start playing.
August 21, 2021, 4:02 am