Shiva Keshavan: Manoeuvring past infrastructural corruption to represent Indian winter sports
In 1998, Shiva Keshavan from India became the youngest ever luge participant in the history of the Winter Olympics. At the tender age of 16, Keshavan was the first Indian participant to set his foot at the winter edition of the Olympics.
A 28th placed finish saw him barely trouble the front-runners.However, his participation opened the gates to India’s Winter sports dream. He would go onto represent India in the next four editions of the event, inducting himself into an elite category of becoming a ‘five-time Olympian’.
Two back to back gold medals at the continental stage, in 2010 and 2011, have propelled him to the top of the Asian rankings. He also holds the Asian Luge speed record of 143.3 kph.
Keshavan’s efforts for the development winter sports and specifically Luge in India, has taken the genre from relative obscurity to international representation.
That being said, the road towardsluge success has not come easy for him. From the beginning of his career, he has been dealing with corruption.
At the age of 14, Keshavan won the national skiing championship. However, certain circumstances forced him to make the transition to a completely different sport.
He said, “Even at that age of 10-13, I saw major amount of corruption and favouritism related issues within the ranks, despite winning the National Championship. This coincided with the luge talent camp and I saw this as a fresh opportunity to be a part of something that I could leave my mark in. You could call it destiny. “
The real question within the issue was how did corruption exist in a sport, which has not seen any penetration into the Indian sporting landscape?
Keshavan retorted, “That’s a very good question, 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.
He added, “The more the sport is away from the mainstream, the higher the chance to get away without scrutiny. You add that to the already completely unaccountable nature of the federations, it becomes nothing but a safe haven. “
Infrastructural problems have been the biggest barrier for winter sports athletes in India. Lack of equipment and tracks have seen the country’s most promising athletes fade away into obscurity. But, Keshavan had a different take to the problem.
The video below shows how Keshavan practiced on the roads of India to practice luge.
He said, “We were like a community, luckily the Himachal valley blessed us with the best natural terrain and we made our equipment with the help of wood.”
In 2002, the Italian luge Federation saw Keshavan’s infrastructural plight and offered him citizenship, so that he could ply his trade in a better environment, However, Keshavan refused to take them up on the offer.
His explanation was simple, “A bunch of us saw winter sports grow from scratch in the country. We still see the potential of it to grow. We never had any ski slopes or snow beaters to create them. So, it was us who beat up the snow manually to create slopes. I was flattered when they offered me citizenship, but yes I had faith in the people, who helped create the community.”
If he would go onto accept the offer, Keshavan would have had better exposure to upgraded tracks, training, coaching, diet and most importantly, finances. Even he agreed to the fact that Indian luge has not grown the amount he expected it to grow in twenty years.
Lack of government support and finances
“Despite becoming a stalwart in the international scene, the Indian government still doesn’t pay for my expenses. But, thankfully certain corporate such as Coca Cola and MTS helped me out, when I needed sponsorship the most,” said Keshavan.
Duncan Kennedy, former technical director of the USA luge team has signed up to coach Keshavan for the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. This is the first time in 17 years that the Manali-based luger has had a personal coach, training him for an event of this magnitude.
Kennedy was a prolific luger himself, and was also the first ever American to win the World Cup. Keshavan has admitted that he has learnt much more in the past few months from the 47-year-old American, than he had, training alone all these years.
He said, “I can say with complete confidence that if I had a coach earlier, I would have done much better at that point. I’m learning so much everyday. I wonder at times, if someone would have told me these simple things earlier, it would have changed so many things.”
Keshavan submitted a proposal to the Sports Ministry to help finance him in the acquisition of a personal coach. However, after repeated attempts there has been no word from the Ministry. In previous press conferences, Kennedy was vocal about his willingness to coach an athlete instead of an entire team.
The fact that he chose Keshavan at the age of 33 highlights the frame of mind the Indian is in, right now. Certainly, he is a far cry from the 16-year old boy, who represented Indian in Nagano, but the 33-year old had a different take on the issue.
He said, “Yes, it’s true your body wears out as you get older. But, in a technical sport such as luge , experience counts. You’ve driven down a track so many times that you know the secrets the track holds. You need to make mistakes to know how to make it out of those situations. So, I’m feeling my best at the moment.”
His performances definitely back his claim, highlighting an increase in form, in terms of results. The 2014 World Championship, in December, saw Keshavan clock a personal best timing of 52.569 seconds. His maiden entry into the World Championship saw him finish in top 25.Not bad for someone, who manoeuvred past traffic as training, not too long ago.
Kennedy spoke about his current performances and said, “We hit all the key targets we had set for ourselves in this race. Shiva still has a long way to go as a slider and as he gets more and more comfortable with the new equipment, we can expect the results to improve further. I think it is a great way to start the season, with a personal best.”
Looking forward – the future of winter sports in India
As Shiva Keshavan prepares himself for the most competitive phase in his career, his willingness to develop Winter Sports in the country has not diminished one bit.
“I have always spoken to every Sports Minister about this. I’m always available to give my time and expertise to take part in sport development programmes. Whether they allow me to, is a different issue.”
He went onto add that several officials and Minister had ego issues, where they valued themselves above the sport. However, Keshavan said that Sports Ministers such as Jitendra Singh have done a wonderful job.
He added, “The problem is every term the minister changes, so at the beginning of every tenure, I have to explain to them what Winter Olympics is and the process continues.”
Keshavan, along with his wife, Namita are running talent scouting campaigns, to search for young talent. One big problem has been the price of equipment. India has never traditionally produced winter sport equipment, so it’s extremely expensive to import them. Countries such as Germany have companies such as BMW, making their equipment.
With the entire ‘made in India agenda’ being enforced, the entire winter sports community is hopeful that cheaper equipment will be made available to them.
“When someone represents their country at an international level, they expect their expenses to be paid for. Hence, there should be a system in place, which helps athletes grow, that’s the dream.”
Keshavan is now preparing for the 2018 Olympics, and is hopeful of translating his performances at the Asian level to the International stage. He has consistently proven that no infrastructural or financial barrier will stop him from being the best.
Taking a sport, which most people haven’t even heard of in India, and qualifying for the Olympics five straight times is no mean feat. Shiva Keshavan has epitomised the struggle of Indian sports, over the past 20 years, and will continue to do so for a long time to come.
Here is a link to the full interview: