Showpiece arena takes shape, Bhopal builds on its sports track record

If all goes to plan, India’s city of lakes will soon have a slice of TrackTown USA.

For, in the outskirts of Bhopal, a stadium modelled on the Hayward Field, one of the most hallowed grounds in world athletics, is under construction. The arena, slated for completion in November, will have a field of play, changing rooms and underground training facilities identical to the stadium in Oregon, USA, considered the home of American athletics. Every aspect of the new construction will be similar, except the outer structure.

“Unlike the stadium in Eugene, Oregon, which has stands on all sides, we’ll have East and West pavilions while the north and south sides will be open. Everything else, we are trying to replicate in toto across all verticals,” Madhya Pradesh Sports Minister Yashodhara Raje Scindia told The Indian Express.

It is expected to be the crown jewel of an ambitious new project alongside a brand-new multipurpose indoor stadium as well as new stadiums and training grounds for hockey, football, cricket, equestrian and futsal.

These facilities will come up on a 100-acre land next to an existing equestrian academy, and right opposite the MP State Shooting Academy which recently hosted the World Cup and was hailed by international shooting federation president Luciano Rossi as one of the finest in the world.

So impressed was the Italian that, before leaving, he urged the National Rifle Association of India to bid for major shooting events, including the World Championships at the venue. “All coaches, athletes, and delegates are very, very happy. We have to work with NRAI for applications for important tournaments in the future,” Rossi told The Indian Express.

The success of the shooting World Cup has given a boost to Madhya Pradesh’s sporting ambitions.

For decades, India grudgingly admired futuristic stadiums that sprung up in faraway lands while yearning for basic sports infrastructure outside New Delhi where athletes could train. That is now gradually changing.

In Odisha, Bhubaneswar has been the epicentre of a massive infra push, with the Kalinga Stadium — world hockey’s capital — being the home to close to a dozen sports inside one giant complex. In Gujarat, the government has floated tenders for the construction of a sports enclave spread over 300 acres inside the Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel Complex, with an eye on hosting the 2036 Olympic Games.

And in Madhya Pradesh, which has facilities spread across from Gwalior to Jabalpur, Bhopal has emerged as a go-to destination with stadiums and training centres mushrooming at a rapid pace.

It was not always like this, however. “When I started playing, we had nothing,” says former India international Sameer Dad. “There was a Sports Authority of India Centre but it didn’t have a hockey ground. There was, though, an area smaller than a volleyball court. All of us worked hard to level the surface and began playing there.”

It was on makeshift grounds like these that Madhya Pradesh produced some of the most crafty players the world has seen – right from the days of Aslam Sher Khan, a key figure of the 1975 World Cup-winning campaign, to Dad, a member of the hockey team that won the Asian Games gold medal in 1998, and Vivek Sagar Prasad, who was a part of the team that won the bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics.

Dad is now the coach of the MP Hockey Academy, which was the first sports project that the state government launched a decade-and-a-half ago. “There was so much talk about MP being a hockey nursery that I thought, let’s start with that. And so, we began with an academy for women in 2006,” Scindia said. One of the trainees from the first year of the academy, Sushila Chanu, went on to become a part of the Indian women’s team that finished fourth in Tokyo, along with four other players who either graduated from the academy or played for the state.

Over the years, academies came up across disciplines — from water sports to equestrian, shooting to martial arts. Recently, Ram Singh Bhadoriya, a farmer’s son, achieved a rare milestone: In a sport dominated by Army men — equestrian — the civilian qualified for this year’s Asian Games in Hangzhou, China. At 17, he is also one of the youngest in the country to make the cut for Asiad in equestrian.

Stories like Bhadoriya’s — of athletes from humble backgrounds succeeding in sports where historically the privileged have done well — are not uncommon in these parts. Before Bhadoriya, there was trap shooter Manisha Keer, a fisherman’s daughter, who broke through the ranks in shotgun shooting and won a silver medal at the National Championships last year. “It is important for us to understand the impact sports can have on society and what hosting big international events can do to the local economy,” Scindia said.

The shooting World Cup, however, also highlighted the practical challenges. One of the biggest hurdles was limited air connectivity, which prompted close to a dozen nations to withdraw. That, however, hasn’t dampened spirits. “We will find a solution to that since our aim is to bid for major international events like the World Cups and World Championships,” Raje said.

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