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Meet Shiva Keshavan-the Manali boy ready to slide with Luge in his 6th Olympics

Shiva Keshavan kept the Indian flag high up as he won his 4th gold in the Asian Championship in 2017. But questions rise as who is Shiva Keshavan? What sport does he represent? It is quite a pity that a man who has represented India in five Olympics and is set to participate in the sixth one at Pyeongchang in South Korea in 2018, is in oblivion.

Shiva Keshavan lying supine on the sled

Shiva Keshavan represents India in Luge sport. Luge, developed from the French word for ‘sledge’, is a winter sport where one has to ride a flat sled on a specially designed ice track while lying supine with his feet stretched out in front of him. Though Luge’s roots go back to the 16th century, it emerged as a sport in Switzerland when, after 300 years of its origin, the first Luge tracks were built by Swiss hotel owners to entertain their tourists by giving a feel of adventure sport. Luge made its first Olympic appearance in 1964 Winter Olympics held at Innsbruk in Austria, with both men’s and women’s events and a doubles event.

The man from India, Shiva Keshavan, had a tryst with this sport when he was 14. Keshavan, who hails from Vashisht village in Manali, attended a Luge camp conducted by world champion Gunther Lemmerer. Keshavan, who was a ski player initially and had won the Junior National Ski Championship in 1995, felt the thrill of Luge and decided to carry on with it.

“I actually started sliding even before I started skiing. But it was only for fun as there was no competitive discipline in India. Once the opportunity came up I didn’t miss the chance as sliding was one of my most fun childhood memories.”

Shiva Keshavan ready for the start in one of his races

Keshavan was selected as a promising young athlete and went on to become the youngest person to ever officially qualify for the Olympic Games in Luge. He made his Olympic debut at the age of 16 in 1998 at Nagano. He finished 28th in the men’s individual event, but still his participation was much talked about.

“In my first years there was a lot of curiosity from athletes of other nations for the novelty factor. But now there is a lot of respect. Sports is a great environment for people from all over the world to get to know each other and learn to work together.”

Shiva Keshavan as the flag bearer in 2010 Olympics

Since then, Shiva Keshavan has participated in five Olympic editions- 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010 and 2014. Unfortunately in 2014 at Sochi, he had to walk as an Independent Olympic Participant at the opening ceremony due to the suspension of the Indian Olympic Association (IOA). However, while the Games was underway, IOA made a comeback as a recognized country that resulted in Keshavan competing under the Indian flag just before his competition.

Administrative goofs, like this, in Indian sports is a major concern, and that reaches an extreme extent in lesser-known sports. There are a number of winter sports federations in India like Ice Skating Union of India, Ice Hockey Federation of India, Indian Amateur Luge Federation, Winter Games Federation of India, etc. But none of these organisations has office-bearers who are actively involved with the sport. Among all the winter sports federations, the Sports Ministry has given recognition only to the Winter Games Federation of India. But as the Federation is affiliated with the International Ski Association, it regulates only skiing among all other winter sports in this country.

“This is the land of wasted opportunities in winter sports. We have the world’s best mountains and amongst the world’s worst winter sports facilities. There are actually hundreds if not thousands of winter sports athletes in India. Unfortunately they are often ignored. Most winter sports federations are a mess and even journalists don’t cover winter sports much because they have to travel to get the facts. It is a sad situation as so many talented young men and women are suffering due to this neglect.”

The Indian Amateur Luge Association governs Keshavan’s sport. But as it is recognised only by the IOA and not the Sports Ministry, the government funds do not reach the athletes. However, Keshavan’s performance in the international level has forced the Ministry to support him through its National Sports Development Fund. Still, Keshavan faces financial crisis in terms of paying salary to his foreign coach or preparing with gears of highest-level.

“In my opinion the government should pay for all the expenses for any athlete representing the country. Some countries also give international athletes salaries because there is no time to work when you have to train.”

Shiva Keshavan on the Asian Championship podium

But gloom never captured the mountain man and Shiva came up with an improved performance every time he represented his country. He started collecting Asian medals from 2005 when he first won a Bronze at Nagano. His first Gold in Asian Championship came in 2011 when he set a new Asian speed record at 134.3 km/h (83.5 mph). In 2017, he won his 4th Asian Gold. Altogether Shiva Keshavan has 2 Bronze, 4 Silver and 4 Gold medals in Asian Championship.

Despite all these achievements, national recognition has eluded Keshavan. He came closest to that when he was nominated for the Arjuna Award in 2012. But in spite of being an Asian Champion, the Indian government failed to appreciate his ability by not conferring the award to him. Perhaps, guidelines change for such lesser-known heroes of India.

“Fame or money was never my priority, my family bought me that since I was a child. What I have is a sense of fulfilment of being able to do what I love.”

This love for his craft has put Keshavan in a different league. He now has the sole focus of passing the baton to the future generation. He has been working on it for some years now. He trains youngsters from grassroots level by organising Luge camps and helps them to get some international exposure.

“My long term goal is to help the development of winter sports in India. This will be great not only for sports but for development in the villages of hill stations. Winter sports is a multi-billion dollar global industry and it can impact many lives.”

But this requires a huge fundraising effort, lots of resources and obvious participation from sponsors. Though there have been a progress in terms of urban participation in winter sports as now many Indians travel to the mountains for winter and adventure activities, still there has to be a proper sport infrastructure at par with the global level.

“The physical training program to get into the optimal physical shape, the technical training or practice to hone the instincts while someone is driving the sled and also the mental aspect is hugely important. And for all these proper infrastructure is absolutely important.”

Shiva Keshavan with his medals and trophy

The journey has been long for Shiva Keshavan. He has been through the ups and downs of the sport. He met a nearly fatal accident in one of his training sessions at Sochi in 2014. But his incredible recovery after falling off his sled at a speed of 57mph showed his grit, determination and fitness. The risk factor is huge in Luge but his confidence in his ability always let him to push the limits. He still tries to learn everyday, he still tries to grip the finer nuances of sliding with his constant practice. Keshavan has upgraded his gears, got hold of the best facilities available and with his immense zeal is ready to compete in the Winter Olympics of 2018. He is the only Indian athlete, other than Leander Paes, who will represent the nation in six editions of Olympics. Perhaps it will be his last and so hoping for the best results from this man of courage. Thank you Shiva Keshavan for giving us a name in winter sport.  

About Poulomi Kundu

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