Odisha banking on sports hostels in pursuit of excellence

Catering to rural areas and building facilities in the interior pockets of the state, Odisha’s sports and youth services department has been able to identity, recruit and nurture talent in sports hostels.

Jhilli Dalabehera, who clinched a gold medal in the 45kg category at the Senior Asian Weightlifting Championships in Uzbekistan recently, said her stay in the sports hostel improved her weightlifting skills as she became part of a process that ensured training under experienced coaches without any distractions.   -  The Hindu Photo Library

Odisha’s sports hostels form the bedrock of a culture that helps the state’s pursuit of excellence. The state government’s focus on the development and revamping of sports hostels covering various disciplines has played an important role in producing athletes of international repute and the state’s rise in the sporting landscape.

Catering to rural areas and building facilities in the interior pockets of the state, Odisha’s sports and youth services department has been able to identity, recruit and nurture talent in sports hostels.

Former Olympian and India hockey player Lazarus Barla, a beneficiary of this system, said, “State government-run sports hostels have been the breeding grounds for sports talent in Odisha. Every year, the state’s lion share of national and international medals are secured by athletes of sports hostels.”

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Certified coaches conduct the talent-scouting programmes in which the process starts from the grassroot cluster level and goes up to the state level. The state also has the Annual Talent Scouting Programme (ATSP) under which youngsters are recruited into sports hostels.

Barla, who was spotted during a talent scouting scheme and secured a place in the sports hostel in Rourkela, feels that the sporting hubs help athletes shape their careers.

“I don’t think without the hostels our future could have been shaped. The hostels helped us to dream big and the training by experienced coaches encouraged us to fulfil our dreams. Panposh sports hostel in Rourkela has made me what I am today and I feel proud of my alma mater,” said Barla, who represented India at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.

At present, the Odisha government has 16 residential sports hostels across 15 districts covering 11 disciplines – athletics, archery, basketball, football, gymnastics, hockey, kabaddi, swimming, volleyball, wrestling and weightlifting.

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Young sportspersons who are recruited get free accommodation, a nutritious diet, an education and sports kits. They also have access to free medical care and state-of-the-art training facilities.

The government also provides a stipend to the hostel residents. Hostel athletes above 18 years of age receive a daily stipend of ₹190, while those younger receive ₹160.

Weightlifter Jhilli Dalabehera, who clinched a gold medal in the 45kg category at the Senior Asian Weightlifting Championships in Uzbekistan recently, is a product of this system, having entered the fold in 2011.

“I got selected through talent scouting and got admission in the Bhubaneswar sports hostel. I had access to experienced coaches and the training was of the highest standards. From infrastructure to sports kits, everything was fabulous and, most importantly, it was free of cost,” Jhilli said.

Jhilli, who also has a junior world championships bronze medal, said her stay in the sports hostel improved her weightlifting skills as she became part of a process that ensured training under experienced coaches without any distractions.

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“I could focus on my dream without thinking of other matters. From 2014, I wasn’t just participating but started winning medals. I also got financial assistance from the government. The success I achieved is because of the support I got from the government. It all started from the sports hostel in Bhubaneswar and that created the base just not for me but for so many athletes,” she said.

One sport, one hostel

Currently, multi-disciplinary sports hostels across 11 disciplines cater to athletes aged between 9 and 25 years. The government has plans to structure the talent pool with the introduction of sport-specific hostels, where athletes of a particular discipline will train under specialised coaches with adequate training facilities.

This restructuring will see the Panposh sports hostel in Rourkela provide hockey training to boys, while the Sundargarh sports hostel will train girls.

Due to robust infrastructure, the sports hostels in Bhubaneswar, Berhampur and Sundargarh will continue to operate as multi-disciplinary training centres.

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“With this restructuring, we aim to create a perfect training ground, develop and strengthen our sports ecosystem, in the core of which lie these sports hostels, from where players of tomorrow will emerge,” said Odisha sports minister Tusharkanti Behera.

To focus on the training of athletes below 18 years of age, the government has decided to reduce the sanctioned capacity of hostels from 1,250 residents to 913. However, athletes above the age of 18 in individual sports will continue to receive hostel facilities based on their state and national performances.

“This will provide focused training and support for the athletes at the beginner and intermediate level to graduate to a senior or elite level. Our hostels will be the pool of talent for the high-performance centres,” said Behera.

The idea to create a dedicated sports hostel policy was explored by researching the popularity of specific sports across districts. Based on data, and inputs from government-appointed sports observers, Odisha decided to move ahead with sport-specific hostels, especially in rural areas.

“We have been toying with this idea for a while. The lull period due to the COVID-19 pandemic gave us an opportunity to reassess our priorities, especially for grassroots. This mechanism will ensure efficient use of districts’ infrastructure and maximise appropriate funds utilisation and introduce an efficient monitoring system. It will also bring a positive change in athletes and make for stronger sports programmes,” Behera added.