Leander Paes became the first-ever Indian to win an Olympic medal in tennis when he won the men’s singles bronze at the 1996 Atlanta Games.
The seven-time Olympian, who was part of the 2016 Rio Olympics, has been a medal prospect since his first Olympic appearance in 1992 and boasts of a stellar career filled with adulation, support and, most importantly, recognition.
However, there has been one other Indian Olympian, a record-holder in his own right, who has been continuously making his presence felt in a sport that doesn’t get the recognition it richly deserves.
While 1996 is earmarked in history for the glory it brought to Indian sporting world, the 1998 Nagano Winter Games isn’t quite mentioned in the same breath especially when Shiva Keshavan, a 16-year-old athlete from Manali, became the youngest Olympian in the sport of luge.
Shiva, who took the world of luge by storm in 1998 is now all geared up to participate at the 2018 Pyeongchang Games — his sixth Olympic appearance.
Since his first appearance at the Winter Olympics, it has been quite an uphill task for Shiva who even had to use a hand-me-down sled to represent the country in the grandest of all stages in the winter of 1998.
Even after all these years, the lack of funding for his sport rankles.
“Yes, it is difficult. It is very frustrating. I definitely try to overlook it when I want to motivate myself. But, I think it is not just in my case, I think every sport is not mainstream and does not get funding until someone suddenly breaks through,” Shiva told Firstpost in an interview in July last year.
The five-time Olympian also lamented the constant need to prove himself despite the laurels he has achieved for the country.
From sufficient funds not being provided for the athletes to coaches not being assigned till the last minute, the problems are aplenty in sports, which are not considered mainstream in India.
“Any sportsperson shouldn’t be put through this kind of turmoil. But, this is our situation right now and the only thing we can do is to try make it better for the next generation of people so that they can have it easier than us.”
Shiva, who has found himself getting entangled in bureaucratic red-tape over and over again, understands the need for a proper dialogue between athletes and authorities.
After years of attempting an organisation of sorts to work for the benefit of athletes, Shiva managed to set up an association of Olympians in 2016 to function as a bridge between the athletes and the ministry.
“This gap between athletes and the ministry needs to be bridged. Right now, there are some federations that are doing nothing and due to their autonomy on the sport they feel no sense of accountability. This has to change.”
The four-time Asia Cup gold medallist believes that weeding out such non-performing federations/associations will be most beneficial for sports in India.
Shiva added that regulations need to also come voluntarily from the federations themselves.
“It needs to be tackled at a fundamental level. Federations should have certain requirements to be considered one. There should be rules to enforce providing auditor accounts for funding received by federations,” added the Olympian talking about the things needed to be done to give the system a major upheaval.
With the 2018 Pyeongchang Games being his swansong Olympics, Shiva is looking at reforming the existing system as his next big battle.
Apart from the system, the other issue with sports like luge, cross-country skiing and figure skating is their lack of popularity in India.
These sports are taken into account only when there is some sort of controversy attached to it like the recent episode with Jagdish Singh — where a confusion over the coach accompanying him to Pyeongchang made him miss the flight to South Korea — and figure skater Nischay Luthra's tryst with sponsors.
Though the absence of people support and popularity have an adverse effect on the acceptance of such sports, Shiva doesn’t believe that it is his job to make a sport popular.
“I am not really interested in marketing and all that jazz. The battle a sportsperson fights is a lot within the mind, how to overcome one’s own weaknesses and on how to get better.”
However, Shiva does agree to the fact that ultimately the sport’s sustenance requires more people to take an interest in sports like luge, ice skating etc.
For a sportsperson who started off in obscurity in 1998, Shiva has come a long way in the past two decades. From being the most celebrated Winter Olympian from India to facing the ignominy of walking in the opening of the 2014 Sochi Games under the Independent Olympic Athlete flag, Shiva has seen it all.
But, he doesn't think that the future is so bleak. He believes that there is a sense of adventure in the present generation of people who take up sport for more than just fame.
Like many other athletes, the 36-year-old luger too is very active on social media and uses the medium to not only interact with his fans but also create awareness about his sport.
While the interest and hype surrounding luge might not be comparable with other Indian athletes, he believes that the awareness has improved.
“People have reached out to me through social media. People send me a lot of messages and that gives me a lot of strength. It shows that what I am doing is creating some ripples.”
However, Shiva feels there is a need for a fundamental change in how the authorities, people, and even the media perceive and deal with Indian athletes.
“We have to start taking pride in our Indian athletes. When I read the papers and I go through the sports page, international tennis stars like Andy Murray and Roger Federer get a lot of space.
“I also want to see what Indians are doing. Maybe we didn’t come first today. But, awareness won’t build up unless our own athletes are given that space, platform, coverage and respect.”
For Shiva, every Winter Olympics since 1998 has been a trial by fire. Apart from the lack of funding, the absence of proper equipment for competing in a sport at the highest level has been a perennial thorn in his flesh.
Shiva’s journey through the five different Olympics has thrown up innumerable stories that are filled with his grit, determination and never-say-die attitude. One of the first Indian athletes to be crowdfunded, he even paved the way for looking at an alternative route to representing India at the world stage.
Shiva, a worthy inspiration for generations of athletes to come, will hang his
boots sled after the end of the Pyeongchang Games.
When asked about his chances at his last-ever Olympics, Shiva said something which can also be used to best summarise his extraordinary 20-year career, “I don’t have to think much about it. I just have to do it.”
Published Date: Feb 06, 2018 11:47 AM | Updated Date: Feb 06, 2018 12:01 PM