Shiva Keshavan: The luger who will be India’s torchbearer for the 6th time at the Olympics
The 1998 Nagano Winter Olympics came and went and the people of India did not pay attention. Austria, Germany, France, Russia and the United States took away gold in ice hockey, skiing and figure skating events. Understandably, there was practically no national interest around the meet.
India, and Indians, can work themselves into a frenzy over sport, but sports in the country is synonymous with cricket and football. If you stretch it a little, you could bring tennis, badminton and basketball under the umbrella, but that's about it.
So in February 1998, when the then 16-year-old Shiva Keshavan flew to Japan to represent India in luge, there was very little publicity. The tournament itself was barely written about, and televised only perfunctorily.
It would be years before Keshavan would tell the story of his solitary two weeks in Nagano, surrounded by athletes from around the world. He was without support, without the sophisticated equipment his contenders had, and far away from the friends who had urged him to this grand arena. And the whole world - apart from India - was watching.
Keshavan remembers he had worn a mismatched outfit to compete in, and badly fitting shoes. The luge he had competed with (a luge is a specially built one-person sled ridden feet-first in a supine position; the shoulder blades are propelled to gain momentum and keep the vehicle moving) was borrowed. He gave it the best shot he could. He didn’t win.
But he stayed on in Japan for the closing ceremony, to bear the Indian flag. This he considered a patriotic responsibility.
Years later, when I ask him about his Nagano experience, Keshavan expresses no regrets. “The exposure to other lugers’ training and work was very important. It opened my eyes up,” he says.
Keshavan has contested in five Olympics so far. The times have changed in all these years. While public interest in winter sports has not significantly skyrocketed, some government support has been extended to athletes over the years.
The fact that Shiva Keshavan has performed brilliantly at numerous international luge tournaments has now attracted media attention. Corporate support is beginning to materialize. Keshavan is relieved and grateful that he has at least a stable source of sponsorship for his basic training needs.
Keshavan can n spend more time actually training and planning, while also strategizing and improvising his game. Recently, he has worked with sport equipment designers and automobile manufacturers on and off, as best as available funding has allowed him, to craft his own luge.
He has been able to combine separate endowments to devise a training program, arrange for fitness and nutrition needs, pay a part of his coach’s salary, and plan international travel.
Incidentally, Keshavan is part-Italian. The Italy government had offered him citizenship, and with it, full coverage for training. Keshavan refused this chance. He had been bred in the hills of Himachal Pradesh. He identifies as Indian through and through.
Recognition from the country he is devoted to has come rather late in the day, but Keshavan, ever the optimist, has no word of complaint. The Himachal Pradesh government nominated the Manali resident for a Parshuram Award, and the Government of India nominated him for the highest award in sports - an Arjuna Award - in 2012.
Yet financial troubles continue to worry him intermittently. He confesses this without any trace of weakness, and talks dispassionately about occasions when he has had to withdraw from tournaments because no travel grant could be found.
A way has been found: a fundraiser that could aid in Keshavan's quest for gold.
The powerfully built man with a roughly cut weather-beaten face comes across as an epitome of tenacity, force of will, and courage. He dreams a single dream, and that is to bring home a gold from the South Korea Winter Olympics in February 2018. His time, work, effort, intelligence and resources are dedicated wholly to this dream.
I ask him about his plans for his future. “I have to be the best I can be.” After a minute he says, “There is plenty of potential in India for winter sports to develop. I was initially a skier. Figure skating is drawing a lot of attention. Eventually I would like to train young lugers. We will have to compete. There is plenty of scope.”
Keshavan does not like departures from his rigorous training routine, but he recently agreed to appear on EPIC Channel’s Umeed India show. Ex-cricketer Virender Sehwag interviewed him, and Keshavan says he enjoyed the experience.
EPIC put Keshavan in touch with Impact Guru, where funds are being raised for the training, travel and other needs of Keshavan and other Olympic contestants. The Impact Guru team has also produced a video documenting Keshavan’s eventful journey.
The luger himself is almost amused by this. As far as he is concerned, he has many miles to go yet.