Tokyo Olympics: Deep Grace Ekka during a match for the Indian women’s hockey team.© AFP
He had started playing the game with a bamboo stick as a boy, walked miles and sometimes hitch-hiked to a playground. Now, he has a cheque of Rs 2.5 crore in his hands, and it is hockey that has made the change possible. This is the story of Birendra Lakra, the vice-captain of the Indian men’s hockey team which bagged bronze in the Tokyo Olympics, as the country won a medal in the Games after 41 years. The scenario is not much different for the other three Olympian hockey players of Odisha who had toiled hard and played sometimes on an empty stomach but never lost the dream of representing the country at the highest level of the game one day.
Birendra Lakra and Amit Rohidas of the Indian men’s team and Deep Grace Ekka and Namita Toppo of the national women’s side were emotional after Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik on Wednesday felicitated them at the Kalinga Stadium with cash awards and government jobs.
All four players hailed from Sundergarh district, which is known as the cradle of hockey in the state. While Rohidas broke down while recalling his late father’s encouragement behind his success, Lakra narrated how he used to walk miles to play hockey in his childhood.
“In my childhood, I used to see Dilip Tirkey and other players on television. From that day, I had a dream that people would see me on TV. And this has been possible only for hockey,” Ekka said, adding that she too struggled a lot to achieve this position.
Toppo also said she too had undergone a lot of problems before coming to a stage and becoming part of the national team. All the four hailed from poor family backgrounds and even could not afford to purchase a hockey stick to start their games which fetched crores of rupees today as cash awards after Olympic success.
While Lakra and Rohidas were given Rs 2.50 crore each, Patnaik also handed over Rs 50 lakh each to Deep Grace Ekka and Namita Toppo, for reaching the semi-finals in the Olympics.
Speaking to reporters on the sideline of the felicitation programme, Lakra said, “When I started playing hockey, it began with a bamboo stick. Not me alone, all the children of our area used to play hockey with the help of bamboo sticks as none of them had money to purchase a formal hockey stick.”
Stating that today he has a hockey stick costing Rs 25,000, Lakra, a two-time Olympian, recalled how he walked miles, used bi-cycles or even travelled in tractors, to reach the playground.
“We had no support. We struggled hard to come up to a level before attracting the attention of the government and the sports hostel,” Lakra said.
That was not enough, even after getting recognition as a national team player, the Team India players had faced problems ahead of the Tokyo Olympics because of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“We could not undertake group practice properly before the Olympics. Some of our members had tested positive. The government of India and the government of Odisha had extended support for which we could practice in Bangalore and SAI (Sports Authorities of India),” he said.
The Odisha government is the sponsor of the national hockey team, both men’s and women’s, since 2018. Lakra said the players remained away from families for almost one year for practice.
The sacrifice has finally paid off. Lakra, who participated in the London Olympics in 2012, however, was not selected for the Rio Olympics due to a knee injury. While thanking Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik for all-out support, Lakra said he and other players are looking forward to the Hockey World Cup to be held at Rourkela in Sundargarh district, his home turf.
Rohidas, the ace defender, became emotional while showing the bronze medal which he dedicated to his late father.
“My father left for the heavenly abode last year. He had a dream of me playing in the Olympics. He would have been very happy today. My family has sacrificed a lot for my success,” he said.
Like Lakra, Rohidas also revealed that he started the game with a bamboo stick.
“Many times I had practised the game on an empty stomach as my family was reeling under abject poverty. I travelled to far off places on tractors, trucks and cycles for playing matches,” he said.
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