Winter Olympics 2018: Shiva Keshavan and his long, often lonely, march as India's Winter Games torchbearer

Amit Kamath
For 24 years, Keshavan has been a constant torchbearer for India at the Winter Olympics, walking along an often lonely path. And throughout it all — 24 winters of trudging through systemic indifference and rising debts — he's found a way of keeping the flame burning.

Nearly a month before he was to take part in his sixth, and possibly last, Winter Olympics, Shiva Keshavan's preparations for the Pyeongchang Games hit a roadblock.

A crash during a training run left the palm of his right hand with a couple of hairline fractures, which necessitated that his hand be put in a cast.

Already up against monumental odds, the injury could not have come at a worse time.

"I have not trained for the last four days since this happened," Keshavan told Firstpost in January this year. "I'm doing some aggressive physiotherapy but I'm still not in a position to slide."

Despite the casualness in his voice, it was evident that the timing of the injury was hardly ideal.

But then, little has been ideal when it comes to Keshavan's tryst with the Winter Olympics.

Borrowed sleds, the on-and-off luxury of hiring a coach, and maxed-out credit cards tell the tale of India's only six-time Winter Olympian.

At Nagano, his first Olympics 24 years ago, a 16-year-old Keshavan spent half a day locked out of the Games Village because Indian officials had not sent across the requisite paperwork.

"When I qualified for my first Winter Olympics, the question I had to answer again and again was 'what is luge?' And I don't mean to laymen. I'm talking about people in the Sports Ministry and the Indian Olympic Association. Not just luge, I had to explain the whole concept of Winter Olympics! I was actually asked by someone in the Sports Ministry to produce a certificate to show that Winter Olympics is the same as Summer Olympics. Where am I going to get a certificate like that from?" asked Keshavan as he broke into a laugh.

"I've been told this many times since then, 'first you win a medal and then we will fund you'. But if I win an Olympic gold, I'm not going to need the government to fund me anymore!"

Over the years, some things have changed. Many have remained the same.

Earlier last month, the Sports Ministry announced a sum of Rs 20 lakh for Keshavan's training under the Target Olympic Podium Scheme. The announcement (which happened a few days after this interview was conducted) came 17 days before the Olympics were to begin.

The wisdom of allotting funds for an athlete's training so close to the Games may raise eyebrows, but at least it is better than four years ago, when Keshavan received money he was promised by the government a few months after the Sochi Olympics had ended.

Two steps forward, one backward.

For 24 years, he has been a constant torchbearer for India at the Winter Olympics, walking along an often lonely path. And throughout it all €" 24 winters of trudging through systemic indifference and rising debts €" he's found a way of keeping the flame burning.

Between Nagano and Pyeongchang, Keshavan has grown.

In his first Olympics, Keshavan was the wide-eyed teenager €" taking it all in. At Pyeongchang, he will be a battle-scarred veteran, familiar with the ways of the world.

There has also been a marked change in the way the luge community, and the winter sports fraternity at large, look at him. He's no longer a novelty €" that guy from India, who does luge.

He's now a beacon of hope for the sport's outsiders and underdogs.

"The first time I went to the Olympics, at Nagano in 1998, people actually came searching for me. They wanted to see the Indian who does luge."

About a year ago, he was approached by an Argentinian luge pilot Lucas Populin, who was also looking to make it to Pyeongchang 2018.

"Populin came to me during the first qualifying race for the Olympics. He was trying to qualify for the Olympics, but had never made the qualifying cut in training before. So he came up to me and said 'can you give me a hand?' We walked down the Igls track in Innsbruck and I explained each corner to him during that track walk. In the very next run, he qualified," Keshavan said.

Populin will not be in action at the Pyeongchang Games because of luge's complex qualification rules for the Olympics, which state that a luger has to make the cut in five different races. Populin made the cut only at Igls.

In a sport where the top countries like Germany stash away their sleds from prying eyes like they contain state secrets, this is just one of the many instances of sportsmanship. When Keshavan's runners were damaged beyond repair last year before a World Cup race, Croatia's Daria Obratov lent him her runner sled. It was with that equipment that he finished the race so as to earn his qualification for Pyeongchang.

"Most of the people from countries which do not have teams filled with technicians and big entourages to help each other out...I've had many instances where people come up to me and ask me for help and I'm very happy to do that. I can identify with them," Keshavan said.

>Faster, more technical

Not just his experience, at his sixth Olympics he has the support of a coach in Duncan Kennedy and better equipment which, for a change, has been made for own body shape.

"I've got a lot of experience right now under my belt, so that helps to mitigate a lot of issues I face. I had started to experiment at some point by making my own equipment. I also have my coach Duncan (Kennedy) to help me. He has a deep understanding of equipment, cause he has worked with some of the big teams in the past."

Through the connections of Kennedy €" who works on the sleds of many lugers from around the world in his garage in Lake Placid €" Keshavan's sled at his last Olympics has been worked on by a technical university based out of New York State called Clarkson's University and a boat manufacturing company called Placid Boatworks, which makes canoes and kayaks.

With these collaborators €" as Keshavan calls them €" on board, the Indian will be taking on the Americans, who have their sleds worked on by NASA and Dow Chemicals, and luge pilots from other countries who have had their sleds perfected with the help of Formula One brands like Ferrari or corporations like BMW. These athletes have the benefit of trying wind tunnel testing frequently. Keshavan has never been in a wind tunnel.

"Even though I don't have cutting-edge technology to help me, I at least have the comfort of knowing what I'm doing rather than the experimentation, or the trial-and-error methods of the past. Basically, this sled is built for me, for my measurements. It's personalised equipment. Otherwise, you're second guessing yourself, constantly thinking what went wrong, was it the steels, was it my position on the sled... By eliminating more unknowns, I have that much more certainty in what I'm doing on the track.

"I started molding my own sled out of necessity. I was looking for technical partners who were professionally doing these sort of things. Clarkson's created the mold for my pod, which is basically the part which a luger lies on. This was a computer generated design as opposed to the handmade design I had before. So at least now it has a certain amount of geometry to it €" I know the left of the pod is exactly a mirror opposite of the right side. It's more stable, and it's made exactly for my measurements," Keshavan said.

He points out that with the newer tweaks, he could shave off vital seconds off his final timing. In a sport timed to the 1000th of a second, that could make the difference between winning and finishing outside the top 10.

"The sport has changed quite a bit since I started. It's become a lot more challenging and demanding in many ways. The tracks are faster, so the speeds have risen. The technical difficulty too has increased. That's the nature of sport. The level of competition is much higher: back when I started I could be one second off and still be in the top 10. Now if you're off by a second, you're finishing in the top 30. So the field has come closer together. There's a lot more technology involved. This has ensured that the average age of the athlete is coming down. Previously, experience was a lot more important, now that is being substituted by technology, the sleds are better.

"If you compare me to the world champion or the Olympic record holder, I'm 0.6 or 0.7 seconds behind. If things like aerodynamics or dampening (controlling the vibration of the sled) or the friction of the steels, can give you even a 0.6 or 0.7-second advantage, then you're right up there in the medals. The gap between where I am and the best in the world can definitely be cut down with better equipment."

Even though Keshavan will be done competing after Pyeongchang, he's not quite done with the sport. A post-retirement career as a coach or an administrator is the logical step for him.

"I've come a long way, as a consequence India has come a long way in luge. The turning point was when I won the first international medal, it was the first medal for winter sports in India. Before that nobody thought that we were good enough to reach that level. But my achievements should be the starting point for the next generation.

"Luge is my passion. I have always wanted to make something happen for luge and winter sports in India. I have done a little bit of both: administration and coaching as well. All it takes is one person who is passionate." View More