How Odisha used athletics sports spectacle to boast to tourists, investors
At the opening ceremony of the 22nd Asian Athletics Championships on 6 July, Odisha showcased the state's history and arts. A dispatch from our travel editor
It was a sultry day in Bhubaneswar. Dark clouds loomed over Kalinga Stadium, where the thousands who had shown up for the opening ceremony of the 22nd Asian Athletics Championships, or AAC, on 6 July used whatever they had at hand—entry passes, notebooks, accreditations—to fan themselves. After the slew of mandatory speeches, there was, thankfully, a grand spectacle that made the sweat seem worthwhile.
For a first-time visitor to Odisha, the opening ceremony was a comprehensive introduction. A glimpse of history was offered through a stylized performance of the Kalinga War, the famous campaign that proved to be the turning point in the life of king Ashoka, who embraced Buddhism soon after. There was an Odissi dance performance, and musician Shankar Mahadevan’s rendition of the popular Odia number Rangabati even had non-Odia speakers swaying.
For the state, the event was an opportunity to showcase itself to travellers and investors. There was a concerted attempt at using the region’s royal past to counter the negative perception of it being one of India’s poorest states.
A slick video boasted of how the state rose to the challenge of getting the stadium ready in just 90 days for the sporting competition, in which 45 nations participated. Another showcased the state’s various attractions: handicrafts such as dokra, patachitra and Ikat; scenic Buddhist sites; temples like Jagannath and Konark; and natural wonders like Chilika Lake and the Gahirmatha beach, where thousands of Olive Ridley turtles—the event’s mascots—come to nest each year.
The video was shot over two months. It was just one of the many ways in which the tourism department sought to make the most of the attention the state was getting. After all, it isn’t every day that the national media treks to the state, and for an event that holds the attention of the nation for four days in a row.
“The AAC presented us with a chance to tell the world that Odisha has transformed itself," says Nitin Jawale, director of tourism. The tourism department created four-five itineraries for the delegates from the 45 participating nations. “We especially highlighted our Buddhist sites, which are little known despite being integral to the history of the religion, to visitors from South-East Asian countries," says Jawale.
Walks in Bhubaneswar’s Old Town—which has more than 350 sandstone temples—were organized daily so that visiting athletes who couldn’t afford longer trips could still experience the state’s heritage.
There was a distinct shift halfway through the opening ceremony. The music became more modern, there were laser displays, and acrobats in suits with flashing lights performed antics suspended from giant balloons. The message was clear: The state was stepping into the future.
And if the results are anything to go by, a new beginning certainly was made—the championships turned out to be the perfect platform for our athletes. India topped the medal tally, winning 29 medals (12 gold, five silver, 12 bronze), breaking China’s dominant streak for the first time since 1983 (this year, China won eight gold, seven silver, and five bronze medals).
Neha Dara was in Odisha at the invitation of the state government