It is not easy to be a winter Olympian from India. To participate in six consecutive games takes a special kind of tenacity. And that is what Shiva Keshavan has in plenty.
When Keshavan qualified for the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano (Japan) at the tender age of 16, he was the youngest person to qualify for the Olympic Games in luge — a winter sport where one or two people ride a flat sled while lying supine on a specially designed ice track.
Though he never won an Olympic medal, winter sports in India is synonymous with him. That is also the reason why he knows the trials and difficulties that a winter sport athlete from India faces. “Any Indian who is competing in winter sports internationally faces a lot of challenges. Not much has changed from the time I had started,” Keshavan, 40, told The Telegraph from Beijing. He was among the 16 candidates who were in the fray for election to the International Olympic Committee (IOC)’s Athletes Commission.
Voting took place during the ongoing Winter Olympics in Beijing. Martin Fourcade (French biathlete and five-time Olympic champion) and Frida Hansdotter (Swedish slalom Olympic champion) were elected on Thursday.
A four-time Asian champion, Keshavan was vocal about the lack of government support for his sport in India as well as the lack of basic facilities. “In India we still do not have an operational track for any of the winter sports. No government body or federation actually scouts for talent or trains them,” he rued. But why is the scene so grim? “The main reason is that the sports ministry does not recognise any of the winter sports federations. So there is no fund,” he said.
“The Indian Olympic Association (IOA) recognises most winter sports federations, with the main ones being ski and snowboard, ice hockey, ice skating and luge. “The recognition norms of the central government are unrealistic for winter sports federations. The norms demand that a sport must have nine state federations. It is difficult to find nine states in India where winter sports are played.”
For Keshavan, taking to winter sports was a natural choice. Born to an Indian father (Sudhakaran) and Italian mother (Rosalba), he grew up in Bashisht, a village close to Manali, which is a winter sports destination. “I was part of a generation that was into winter and adventure sports. Over the years many have moved away from it, frustrated with the lack of facilities. But I feel things can only get better,” he said.
Keshavan won the Junior National Ski Championship in 1995 at the age of 14. At the age of 15, he attended a luge camp conducted by Guenther Lemmerer, an Austrian luger. Keshavan was selected as a promising young athlete and went on to compete at the 1998 Nagano Games. “From there things just started falling into place. Initially I was picked up by the international development programme. Then I was noticed by the Italian team and they offered me a training package. I had partnerships with the US and Australian teams too.” He added: “There are many international programmes. Our athletes need to avail of them. I am trying now to chalk out plans for them so that they get proper training and corporate sponsorships.”
How did he keep himself motivated to take part in six Olympics? “I realised early on that to be good in any sport you need time and you need to be consistent. There is no quick fix. “I got some good results at the Asian level and that gave me confidence (The last of his four Asian championships came in 2017 at the Asian Luge Championships at Altenberg, Germany).”
With an eye on the future, Keshavan is now working with the Luge Federation of India as a high performance director. He is also the president of the Olympians Association of India.