Imagine being offered world class training facilities in the sport of your choice and getting paid for it. In India, this particular notion is a utopian dream for most. In 2002, India’s Winter Sports hero Shiva Keshavan was offered exactly that by Italy. His response reinforced the concept of patriotism and the will to succeed at any cost.
Keshavan’s rise within the world luge hierarchy has been one of the unsung stories in India’s vast sporting landscape. Making his international debut as a 16 year old at the 1998 Nagano Olympics, he became the sport’s youngest ever participant and also the country’s first ever Winter Olympian.
A 28th placed finish amongst 32 competitors saw him hardly trouble the leaders, but Keshavan’s participation itself placed India’s first building block for winter sports abroad.
Since then, he has been a part of four Olympic editions, carrying the Indian flag alone on two occasions. Despite being a five time Olympian, a feat that is restricted to India’s sporting elite, finances have been difficult to garner for Keshavan.
For the first time in close to a decade, the national flag will be absent from the World Luge Championship.
I have run out of money, will not participate in any tournament till finances are available: Keshavan
Speaking exclusively to Sportskeeda, Keshavan said, “I simply ran out of money, the entirety of last season I dug deep into my savings last season and now I have no money. I realised if I want to sustain my family and not be on the streets this is a step I have to take.”
The tournament is set to begin on January 31 in Konigsse, Germany.
Another major setback for the 34-year old is the exit of former world Champion and Coach Duncan Kennedy. Under the American’s guidance, Keshavan won a silver medal at the recently concluded Asian Luge Championship. He said, “This was always going to happen, Duncan’s salary was Rs 13 Lakhs a year. I had applied to the National Sports Development Fund (NSDF) for help, they did allot me Rs 10 lakhs.I couldn’t garner the remaining amount either. He also saw a situation such as this coming up at some point, as none of his letters to the Indian government received a reply. Even Duncan’s dues are yet to be cleared, stuff such as travel, lodging etc. It’s a huge disappointment ahead of the Olympics, because our timings were getting better every day, and the equipment was also working fine.”
The Sports Ministry did agree to pay Duncan’s salary, but only one-third of it. The rest was paid by Shiva through his own pocket. He added, “The International Luge Federation has also written to the Sports Ministry, asking for a plan to help me out.”
Despite writing repeated letters to the Sports Ministry, his attempts to garner funds for the Olympics have received no attention. He added, “I have written to Mr Sarbananda Sonowal regarding my current condition, but I am unfortunately still awaiting a reply from that end, and it’s not just me. Three junior India entries for the Asian Championships were also blocked, because they didn’t have any funds. Right now, luging abroad is completely out of the question. I will keep trying, write again to the Ministry and hope to find corporate sponsors. It is becoming increasingly difficult for me to follow my passion.”
A holder of the Asian speed record at 143.3 kph, Keshavan won Asian gold twice in 2011 and 2012, highlighting his domination of the sport in the continent. At just 14 years of age, he began his tryst with winter sports, after becoming the National junior Ski Championship. Having to quit due to corruption issues, Keshavan learned luge within a year and booked a spot at the Olympics.
Rejecting Italian citizenship
Italy, which boast of world class lugers such as Armin Zoggeler recognised Keshavan’s talent. They offered him citizenship and access to all existent luge infrastructure along with funding. However, he rejected citing patriotism as the major issue. He said, “My mission to develop winter sports in India would be impossible if I were to leave my country. I still have the same mission although I have realized that our government seems to care nothing about its athletes, much less about developing sports in rural areas.”
In 2015, Keshavan had approached the Sports Ministry for financial aid. He was promised a substantial amount however, that particular payment is yet to reach him. Keshavan added, “I was very hopeful that the new government headed by Prime Minister Modi would be more proactive in sport development as well as improve the bureaucratic delays, and improve transparency and accountability. However, in the case of winter sports, it seems my hopes were unfounded as the situation is getting worse. I met with the current Sports Minister Sarbananda Sonowal since he took over the Office and he did assure me of support. I have submitted my proposal to him twice and been assured that it will be looked at in a positive light. Ironically for one year now, I have not heard from them since, despite repeatedly approaching them.”
In a country where any sport outside the realm of cricket, football and to a certain extent badminton fails to garner the people’s imagination, Keshavan has been an absolute revelation. His rise not only represents an existent dedicated and motivated talent base, it also indicated that Indian sportspersons consistently fight infrastructural, financial and societal barriers, to reach their goal.
Coach Kennedy himself was surprised with Keshavan’s current plight. He said, “It is unbelievable that someone with this kind of passion and talent is going through such a difficult time. He is a great ambassador for the sport in general and the ideal candidate for the growth of winter sports in India. He should be lauded instead of being treated the way he is. I would like to help him out, but no professional coach can continue without receving payments.”
Despite the lack of resources within the sport in India, corruption has been a central problem. He said, “If you see we have a lot of National Sports Federations, which govern sport which aren’t practiced India. What they do is another mystery, a lot of these associations have been used to cover up illicit activities.”Speaking about the high expenses within his sports, he added, “For an athlete that dedicates all of his time to train, it will be very difficult to find a regular job and earn a regular livelihood. That is why the government should maintain athletes that are representing our country internationally. I have dedicated 20 years of my life to serving my country and in order to make ends meet, I have applied for various government jobs that are supposed to be available to athletes. So far I have not received any support to improve my situation.”
Keshavan was also forced to participate as an Indian athlete, after the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) was suspended during the 2014 Winter Olympic Games in Sochi.
Need Rs 80 lakhs to even think of the Winter Olympics in 2018: Keshavan
To resume his luge career, which is temporarily on hold, Keshavan needs to garner a minimum of Rs 80 lakhs. The target still remains participation at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics in South Korea. He added, “There are several world cup events this year, which will be very important for the Olympics. But until I get corporate sponsor, or raise the money myself, I will not be able to compete.”
With no response from the government yet, Keshavan’s dream of Olympic success is steadily diminishing. Instead of celebrating the success of a hero, who put India on the World map, we just might see his career fade away into the oblivion.
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