Leander Paes is the toast of the nation, having participated in a record seven Summer Olympics. Shiva Keshavan is a virtual unknown despite having taken part in six winter editions of the Games. Average Indians might be hard-pressed at recalling even the names of the venues of these six Winter Games, but hey, in India, we do not consider participation as its own reward, rather expect medals out of thin air and zero institutional support. That Paes managed to win not just a Bronze in Olympics, but also numerous Grand Slams and Davis Cup ties, is beside the point. The issue that concerns is how India could have supported a hugely motivated sportsperson, and given fillip to winter sports in the country, yet frittered away the god sent opportunity.
In the last six Winter Games, India has sent contingents of one, two or three sportspersons. The land of Himalayas could do much better than offer token presence. There lives a lot of untapped potential on our heights. Surely Germany, Russia, Canada, Norway and Japan hold advantage as far as infrastructure and systemic support is concerned, but no medals and hardly any participation to show for does not behove India. We do not even have a luge track, and have not properly developed ice-skating, skiing and sliding centres for competitive purposes. If recalling the Games at Nagano(Japan), Salt Lake City, Turin, Vancouver, Sochi (Russia) and Pyongcheng (South Korea) is tall order, rest assured that the mention of Luge, the chosen event of Shiva Keshavan, would draw blank stares.
What the heck is Luge anyway?
Luge literally means soft-coasted sled.
Luge is a sport in which a sportsperson lies flat on a sled (weighing 21-25kg) in supine (face-up) position, with his feet leading the motion. A luger steers the sled using his calf muscles to flex the sled’s runners, or uses the opposite shoulder pressure to the seat to subtlely change direction. The event is held on specially designed ice tracks, which allow gravity to increase the speed of the sled (hence bulk does not hurt). The aim after the initial sliding burst is to lie as flat as possible and minimize the aerodynamic drag. Competitors try to finish the race in the fastest possible time, usually running against a timer. The elegant looking sport is actually a very fast-paced and dangerous one, with maximum speeds reaching in the excess of 135 kmph. The Luges are custom-made for each luger, and comprise of fibre glass pod, runners and bows. A race usually gets over in less than a minute, and cumulative timings across multiple races (4-5) are seen to determine winners.
Four lugers have lost their lives during preparations/training for the Winter Olympics since 1964. Luge is classified as ‘extreme sports’ in which bumps, bruises, broken bones, concussions and fatalities are common. Once the race has begun, there is no way to stop midway. Accidents at such high speeds are quite probable and damaging. In the run-up to Sochi 2014, a video of Shiva Keshavan went viral. He had fallen off the sled midway on the track during a training session, but somehow managed to get back on top of it to complete the race.
Shiva Keshavan hails from Manali (Himachal Pradesh) and is the son of a Malayali backpacker father, and an Italian mother. The duo met during a trek, got married and opened various businesses including cafes, restaurants and adventure sports agencies in the Valley. Shiva did his grad and post-grad from Florence, but in 2002, passed over an offer to train in, and represent Italy at the international events. Keshavan identifies himself as a proud Himachali, and explains that one of the main motivations behind his competing at the highest levels was to bring fame to Manali. After all, this Sanobarian has learnt to slide on the majestic Rohtang Pass highway.
Alas, this committed luger hardly received any government support during the time he was active. He used to spend six months in crowd-funding, one month in preparation for training and then would leave for Europe or US for five months of actual training, for there are hardly any facilities in India. To give a perspective, Shiva required approximately One crore Rupees in 2014, which was the Olympic year, but received only Rs 20 Lakh through TOP Scheme. Even that help arrived three months after the Olympics.
Despite these impediments, Shiva has enjoyed a glorious career. He has won numerous medals of all hues in the Asia Cups and Asian Championships. His personal best is 134.3 kmph (WR being 154 kmph). Shiva Keshavan might have retired but has not walked away from sports. He is involved with the development of Winter sports. He is the President of Olympians Association of India, and manages Sports Wise India, a consultancy. One can only hope that the government shall utilize his services for strengthening the Olympic movement in the country. A medal to begin with, in the Winter Games, should be our target.
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