The Tata Steel story in sports dates back nearly a century and it illuminates a culture of excellence in different disciplines
What could steel and sports possibly have in common? There is no correlation between the making of steel and the moulding of sportspeople, yet Tata Steel has been one of the foremost corporate promoters of Indian sports. The company has backed individuals and institutions, built academies for football, archery, athletics, hockey and mountain climbing, and it has been doing all of this for over a century.
The Tata Football Academy, established nearly three decades ago, has been home to India’s best footballers. Many members of the country’s archery team hail from Tata Archery Academy, including the outstanding Deepika Kumari.
There are 45 Arjuna Award winners on Tata Steel’s rolls. Cricketers Sourav Ganguly and Ajit Agarkar have worked for the company. Bachendri Pal, the first Indian woman to climb Mount Everest, joined Tata Steel before she started training for the peak. If there was a sports map drawn of India, the state of Jharkhand would outshine the others thanks to Tata Steel’s sporting efforts there over the decades.
“Historically, we have always supported sports,” says TV Narendran, global chief executive and managing director, Tata Steel, pointing out that it was a tradition started by the company’s first chairman, Dorab Tata, who helped finance India’s participation in the 1924 Paris Olympics. Tata Steel later established the Jamshedpur Athletic Club in 1927 and started sports competitions for working women and children.
Much of this has been about promoting a wider and more inclusive sports culture. “Traditionally, Tata Steel has supported sports that did not have enough sponsorship,” says Mr Narendran. In 1984, the company set up the Tata Youth Adventure Centre, known today as the Tata Steel Adventure Foundation, which is helmed by Ms Pal. Three years later, the company launched the Tata Football Academy. Indian athletics, too, received a boost when Tata Steel unveiled the Tata Athletics Academy in 2004. The company sets aside roughly 50 million every year to support its sports academies.
After 30 years of training India’s best talent, Tata Steel has taken its engagement with football a step further. In 2017, it bid for a spot in the India Super League (ISL) and won. Jamshedpur Football Club is coached by Steve Coppell (see interview on page 109), the Manchester United legend. The team brings together some of India’s best footballers and experienced foreign players.
This is the company’s maiden foray into commercial sports. “The time was right to make the move,” says Mukul Vinayak Choudhari, chief executive of Jamshedpur FC. “ISL has managed to get a huge number of fans to the stadium and it has strong television ratings. And this gives our academy cadets the opportunity to play for an elite team.”
Tata Steel has shown its seriousness by upping its budget for football from 20 million a couple of years ago to around 800 million now. Having access to the JRD Tata Sports Complex is a big advantage for Jamshedpur FC. “We have control over the events we conduct and we can ensure a better experience for the audience and other stakeholders,” says Mr Choudhari.
The larger intent behind Jamshedpur FC is not just to win tournaments; it aims to enhance the overall ecosystem for the sport. That means grassroots football, youth football and women’s football, as also improving infrastructure and training and development modules.
Jamshedpur FC is also putting together a plan that focuses on community development. “We are getting closer to the objective of having people from tribal and rural areas participate in football,” says Mr Choudhari.
ISL has a role to play in the process. “Thanks to the league, which is televised in more than 100 countries, the club playing from Jamshedpur and named after the city has put Jharkhand on the world football map.”
The academies established by Tata Steel down the years have nurtured talent in a variety of sports:
Tata Steel Adventure Foundation
Established in 1984 and headed by Bachendri Pal, the first Indian woman to climb Mt Everest, TSAF is all about promoting the spirit of adventure and enterprise, and leadership development. It has helped several enterprising mountaineers, including Premlata Agarwal, who at 48 became the oldest Indian woman to climb Mt Everest, and Arunima Sinha, who lost her leg in a train accident, became the first female amputee in the world to climb Mt Everest. TSAF works with children as well, notably Talim Ansari, a teenager from Jharkhand, and Aman Verma, the 13-year-old climbing sensation. It is also involved with rural youth; more than 3,000 of them have benefitted from TSAF’s outdoor leadership programme.
Tata Football Academy
TFA was established by the Tata Steel Sports Foundation in 1987. The academy was conceived to nurture budding Indian footballers, train them in a scientific way and raise the overall standards of Indian football. TFA identifies and shortlists raw talent from all over the country. Selected candidates join up for a four-year residential programme. Till date, 213 cadets have graduated from TFA, of whom 141 have represented the country. Academy cadets have also captained the Indian football team (in different age groups), and two former cadets have won the Arjuna Award. There are 28 ex-cadets participating in the current season of the Indian Super League.
JRD Tata Sports Complex
Inaugurated in 1991, this 30-acre, world-class complex in Jamshedpur has a seating capacity of 40,000. As a multi-use stadium, it provides athletes with boarding and training facilities. The complex has an international-size football field, with an eight-lane synthetic running track around the field. It is primarily used for football and athletics, but also offers facilities for archery, basketball, hockey, swimming, table tennis, tennis and volleyball.
Tata Archery Academy
TAA was formally inaugurated in 1996. It aims to spot India’s promising archery talent, particularly from the Jharkhand region, and train them to achieve success at national and international meets. Over the last 16 years, the academy has trained 127 cadets, 45 of whom have represented India at various levels. Its most popular student is Deepika Kumari, who has made it to the world’s top ranks in the sport. In Rio Olympics 2016, out of the four archers representing India, three were from the TAA.
Tata Athletics Academy
Set up in 2004, this academy was meant to train runners and athletes. It is no longer operational, but Tata Steel has joined hands with the Sports Authority of India (SAI) to run the Athletics and Boxing Centre at the JRD Tata Sports Complex.
Naval Tata Hockey Academy
NTHA, located in Jamshedpur, is a joint venture between Tata Steel and Tata Trusts that was launched in 2017. Tata Steel is the first private company in India to start a hockey academy. It intends to tap into the vast pool of natural talent for hockey among tribal communities in Jharkhand, and train and support them to make their mark in the global arena.
The community has been at the heart of the activities that Tata Steel supports. “We have nurtured archery because it is native to the part of the country we belong to and the tribal communities have a natural talent for it. Moreover, Tata Steel and Tata Trusts have set up a hockey academy in Jharkhand, which has traditionally nurtured talent,” says Mr Narendran. Its sports mission has seen Tata Steel engage more closely with the tribal communities living near its plants. Every year, the company hosts Samvaad, an annual tribal conclave attended by hundreds of tribes from across India. In 2017, for the first time, participants were treated to a tribal sporting event. The company also organises a football tournament along with other Tata companies located in Jamshedpur. The event draws around 30,000 youth from across Jharkhand.
While sport has served as a unique link between Tata Steel’s business and the community, its role in the company’s culture and identity has grown stronger than ever.
Sekkor is a game played by Jharkhand’s Ho tribe. According to tribal folklore, it’s an ancient game that was first played between men and devils, with the former emerging as winners. A sekkor is a large, oval-shaped wooden top loosely attached with a string. There are two teams with 9 or 11 members each. The objective of the game is to keep hitting the sekkor of the opposing team till it goes out of the playing circle. The game identifies with the spirit and swiftness of the Ho tribals. Played in summer, the tribe believes that sekkor brings rain to the regions where the sport is played.
For the past four years, Tata Steel has been working to revive the game by organising hundreds of sekkor matches and training interested participants. In 2017, Tata Steel’s ores, mines and quarries division organised a two-month long Sekkor Premier League at the Noamundi Sports Complex. About 300 people signed up for sekkor training, and 2,300 players from about 120 villages participated.
Kati, a game played by the Santhal tribals, requires agility, strength and quick reflexes. It is traditionally played after the harvest season by teams of 10 members each. Every player has a kati (a semi-circular wooden disc) and a tarhi (a 6ft bamboo stick). Players try to hit the opponent’s kati by propelling the bamboo stick with their feet. Tata Steel’s Tribal Cultural Society has been organising kati tournaments in the villages of Jharkhand and Odisha, with participation from up to 100 teams and more than 1,000 players.
The revival of kati and sekkor in Jharkhand is testament to Tata Steel’s efforts to preserve the sporting culture and traditions of tribal communities in the regions where it operates. The effort surely has been worth it.