Shiva Keshavan's career seems to be an anti-thesis to the sport he pursues. It's simple, the sport of luge is perhaps one of the fastest on the planet but the recognition and rewards he has managed to get has been slow in comparison. The Arjuna Award is perhaps an apt reflection. He was nominated in 2012 but finally selected in 2020. Keshavan, however, still finds a reason to laugh and cling on to his unique blend of character – belief and unflinching devotion to the sport.
Every time Keshavan is in the news, luge as a sport too is heard. It's an obscure sport in India and there is no infrastructure available in the country. Every google search on luge here would throw up Keshavan’s name — the two are inseparable in an Indian context.
The athlete, who turns 38 on August 25, used wooden sleds and hurtled through inclined roads in Manali, his hometown. On August 29 when he gets his Arjuna Award, he would be a rare winter sports athlete in India to be conferred with this award. His CV is impressive too. He is a six-time Winter Olympian, as well as the Asian record holder. In an informal chat with this paper, he explains the background of applying for the award this year and its importance. Excerpts:
Did you think you should have got the Arjuna years back when you won the Asian Cup?
This has happened. It is a long struggle for recognition not just for myself but much bigger than myself — long struggle of recognition for the whole of winter sports. There are so many athletes and as a movement, winter sports is huge. We are completely ignored so I am immensely happy. Actually, I never ran after awards, never in my whole career. When I was nominated and did not receive it, yes, I was disheartened. I never campaigned for anything. The only year I had won my gold medal at 2011 Asian championships, the federation had nominated me but that federation was not recognised. That was in 2012. It went nowhere and in fact even today, none of the winter sports federations are recognised.
Only thing that changed was that due to Covid-19, the ministry had opened up entry through self-application. I initially was not going to apply but then a friend of mine told me that 'they have opened up for self-nomination you should apply otherwise tomorrow you cannot say that diya nahi (did not give)'. So I said 'ok let's do this'. I applied and wrote to the Olympic Association of India (IOA) and wrote to the Sports Authority of India (SAI) that I have applied and left it at that.
All of a sudden, few days back I got a call saying that 'your nomination has been accepted'. I was surprised. At the same time, happy and at the same time not sure whether to celebrate because it might get cancelled again. Something could have happened so it was quite interesting for a couple of days. This opens a lot of doors for the future of winter sports and my involvement in the promotion of winter sports.
You wrote to SAI and the IOA. They were happy to accept your nomination?
Once I completed my time as an active athlete, I reached out to all these sports organisations and I told them that I wanted to work for the betterment of winter sports. Now, the problem is that when you are an athlete, you see all. I had a very tough experience as an athlete dealing with many sports organisations because it is not an easy job to deal with the officials to make your plans and to fight for your funding. And you need the organisation in place. I recognised that now so I want to be that shield, that can protect the athletes from direct involvement and be the person who stands up for the athletes and fight for winter sports facilities... things like that because the federation can't do anything against the other people but only against the athletes. That is a role that I want to get into. Thankfully, I have found that after so many years of repeating the same thing and trying to push for the winter sports promotion, finally it is being accepted and taken positively by the ministry, by SAI and the IOA.
By now, they all know that winter sports is there and we do have potential. Right now, the sports ministry has spent a lot of money for Khelo India. Slowly, all these things are changing. I feel organising Khelo India Winter Games will go a long way in popularising the sport. It's just about being in the right time and right place and things are working out now.
In what capacity are you planning to take up this responsibility?
There are a few plans. First of all I have been nominated as the high performance director in luge federation. It is just a nominal post but I have used that in my official capacity to submit a long term development plan for the sport and to create a number of athletes, talent scout camps and the elite programmes.
So I have made up this plan for the winter federation but we still have to overcome the hurdles. We need to get all the winter sports federation recognised by the ministry. That will help the sport get funding for training of athletes etc. Once that comes through, we will have a budget and then we will be able to implement the development programmes.
Even for me to work in terms of salary and remuneration because that too is important. I have dedicated (my career) for winter sport but I can't do that unless it is financially viable for me. It's been a tough couple of years. I wanted to be involved with the sport but I had to look for alternatives to support my family. If these two things come together, I will be really happy. This Arjuna Award will help in this endeavour.
On the possibility of a Dronacharya...
Let's see. Hope it is not going to be another forty or fifty years! (laughs). This has reignited hope and something is going on. Already people know what I have done. The issues that I care about in winter sports should be given weightage and importance, so that's why this recognition is important.
On the plans for an academy?
Yes, I have got some plans for high performance training centres. There are quite a few high performance centres for summer sports but nothing for winter sports. And for mountain sports in general. I think time is right for states like Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Ladakh and even the North East to develop this as a full-scale industry. I have plans for this. I have been promoting and talking about it. After Arjuna, this might be taken more seriously. The way people talk. 'Where are the facilities? No ski slope. No training hall. Not single support staff'... It's something people say but the ground reality is different. Himachal has huge potential. My next mission is to promote winter sports.
Recreational to professional sport
Even for recreational sport, you need infrastructure. There are no ski slopes. Everything is haphazard. There are no cured slopes. Once you have a proper centre, that can serve as a hub for winter sport. Even elite sportspersons can come for high altitude training. One you build a centre you have to make sure your activity is year-round – from training to conducting events.
Skiing vs Luge...
You have to think of it as a slide. You need a course where you can slide. High speed. I don't think that should be difficult at all.