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Six interesting things to know about tribal hockey players of Sundargarh 

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Whenever a national or international level hockey tournament is held in Odisha, the most discussed topic is the craze for hockey among the tribals in Sundargarh district. The same discussion was bound to crop up when Odisha hosted the Men’s Hockey World Cup 2023 in Bhubaneswar and Rourkela between January 13 and January 29, 2023.

Why does Sundargarh produce hockey players of high calibre from its tribal stock? Here are six points you need to know.

1. Adivasis of different groups comprise a half of Sundargarh’s population. Besides its mineral resources like iron ore, manganese and limestone, the district is known as a talent pool for national hockey.

2. The Adivasis of Sundargarh have been playing hockey for generations, much before the government started supporting the sport. For them, hockey is their life and passion. They start playing hockey once they learn to walk and run. All the tribal villages have their own small playgrounds and the village teams compete with each other to win goats and chickens as prizes. Such players later go on to dominate national junior and sub-junior tournaments and represent India at international tournaments. Most hockey players say their first sticks, chopped from local trees, were gifted to them by their parents.

3. How passionate are the tribals of Sundargarh about hockey can be gauged from the fact that during selections for different sports, almost all show their eagerness to play hockey though they are found suited for athletics, football, basketball, volleyball and even cricket.

4. In the mid-19th century, European missionaries introduced hockey to the tribals of Sundargarh. Before that the tribals were playing their own traditional sport that required a stick to dribble a ball made of any rounded substance – a stone or a hard fruit – with cloth or fibre wrapped around it. They enjoyed playing hockey because they found it quite similar to what they were playing.

5. Sundargarh has a total 17 blocks now. The missionaries came in the pre-Independence era to spread Christianity in areas of the district that now form Balishankara, Biramitrapur and Gurundia blocks because, inhabited by Adivasis, they were among the most backward regions of the country. Today these three blocks have given the most number of international hockey players like former India captain Dilip Tirkey, Prabodh Tirkey, Ignace Tirkey, Lazarus Barla, Subhadra Pradhan and Sunita Kulu. The Indian hockey team for the Men’s Hockey World Cup 2023 has two players, vice captain Amit Rohidas and Nilam Sandeep Xaxa; both are from Balishankara block area.  

6. After coming to Sundargarh, the missionaries opened churches, schools and hospitals. Hockey became a great tool for them to attract the Adivasis to all the three institutions. They focused on tribals’ education, nutrition and improving their physical fitness. This inculcated a sense of discipline among the tribals of Sundargarh, which is rarely found in other Adivasi groups of Odisha. They are more educated and physically stronger than their counterparts in other parts of the state. All these contributed to their being world class hockey players.

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