The Indian Dream at the 2018 Winter Olympics
The build-up to the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games has been anything but uneventful. While Russia’s suspension may come as a disappointment for some, the fact that the Games will be telecast live on TV for the first time in years appears to be an exciting prospect.
With only 102 events spread over 15 disciplines, the Winter Games continue to be no more than a neglected stepbrother to its Summer counterpart. Granted that winter sports are immensely popular in the United States, Canada, the Netherlands, and Germany – countries that fetch the most number of medals in the Games – but they are still to become a global phenomenon. Tropical countries have little to no representation at all, and the apathy among the national federations isn’t helping either.
India’s history at the Winter Olympics
India, for instance, isn’t new to the Winter Olympics. Jeremy Bujakowski was the first to represent the country at the Winter Games way back in 1968. However, it took no less than two decades for another Indian to participate in the Games as the trio of Gul Dev, Kishir Rahtna and Shailaja Kumar donned the Indian colors in 1988.
Since then, India has had no more than four participants in the Winter Olympics each time. There have been occasions (in 1998 and 2002) when the country was able to send only a single competitor, contesting in a single event. It is, therefore, of little wonder that the country is still waiting for its first ever medal at the Winter Olympics.
Fighting against the odds
Despite the mighty Himalayan ranges flanking the northern parts of the nation, winter sports professionals in India paint a rather sordid picture. In the words of Shiva Keshavan, who has been representing India at the Winter Olympics since 1998, “There have been instances when I had to explain what I do, who I am to the administrators. To them, Winter Olympics weren’t The Olympics. When you see how even Olympic sports have been obscure in India, of course Winter Olympics is in an even worse position.”
Winter sports might be a multi-million dollar industry, but it certainly cannot thrive amidst the apathy and corruption prevalent in a developing nation. Funding from the government is a utopian dream for athletes like Keshavan. Moreover, with the Indian Olympic Association struggling to fight internal politics and stay on the good books of the international organization, the predicament is worse than most would imagine.
Come February 9, Keshavan will be bearing the Indian flag along with compatriot Jagdish Singh. Born in Manali, Himachal Pradesh, Keshavan was drawn towards skiing in his early years. At 15, he took up luge and went on to become the youngest contestant ever to represent his country in luge in the Winter Games in 1998. He was offered Italian citizenship in 2002, but refused to continue his dreams in India. As he gears up for his sixth and final Olympics, Keshavan’s bag of accolades seems rather full – two gold, one silver, and two bronze medals at Asian Luge Cup.
Yet, his achievements have barely swayed the government’s stubborn stance on winter sports. He has been refused funding on multiple occasions, and there have been times when he had had to go without a personal trainer for years. Corporate organizations like Coca Cola and MTS have offered him sponsorships, thus letting him continue his quest for an Olympics medal.
But not everyone has the fortune or tenacity of the luge stalwart. Alpine skier Himanshu Thakur was all set to represent India in PyeongChang after setting sub-140 scores in four different Olympics qualifying events. All he needed was another score below 140 before the deadline, but the cancellation of the event at Iceland dashed his Olympics dreams.
The lack of governmental support
Winter sports are expensive. A skier needs skis, boots and bindings, helmets, poles, ski suits, ski goggles, and skiing gloves. The prices of the equipment usually add up to Rupees 10 lakhs. This is bereft of necessary investments like personal coaches, trainers, entry fees for international competitions etc. There are further expenses like gym, physiotherapy, travel, boarding and lodging too. Skating, snowboarding and luge also require their respective kits. The scarcity of infrastructure in the country means athletes have to travel abroad for practice, thereby incurring more expenses.
However, the government’s cold shoulder implies athletes have to meet their own expenditures. In the 1998 Games, Keshavan borrowed a sled from the Koreans free of cost, in 2002 and 2006, the International Luge Federation provided him with a sled, and in Vancouver 2010, a group of five Indian lawyers raised Rs. 450,000 ($9700) to buy him a sled. For Sochi 2014, he had to rely on crowd funding.
In fact, the situation was so bad in 2010 that the three man contingent of Keshavan, alpine skier Jamyang Namgial and cross-country skier Tashi Lundup were left with no proper uniform for the opening ceremony until the owner of a sports shop donated track suits with the Indian flag embroidered onto the gear.
Competing at the highest stage with local kits
Back in the early 2000s, the likes of Keshavan were used to building their own sleds and skiing boards since India did not have a single manufacturer of winter sports gears. Unfortunately, not much has changed in the last decade. Indian athletes still have to either make do with local kit
It is, therefore, not too difficult to fathom why India lags behind in winter sports, in spite of being one of the most populated countries in the world. Financial assistance to deserving athletes, in addition to improvement of infrastructure to world class levels, may not be the ultimate answer to all its woes, but it’s certainly a major step towards encouraging the growth and development of winter sports professionals in the country.
The promising future
Despite the challenges, a number of young athletes are taking up winter sports in the country. A few weeks ago, 21-year old Aanchal Thakur won India’s first ever international medal in the Alpine Ejder 3200 Cup in Turkey. The Indian contingent at the Special Winter Games last year bagged a tally of 73 medals.
The Sports Ministry needs to collaborate with the Winter Games Federation of India (WGFI) in order to filter and nurture the talent pool. If done right, this may ultimately pave the way for a Winter Olympics medal in time.