Indian luge athlete Shiva Keshavan bidding for a place at Winter Olympics in Sochi
The movie "Cool Runnings" played a part in bringing him into the sport initially
Brought up in the foothills of the Himalayas, he took up luge aged just 15
He has battled to get funding in order to compete in Russia in February
The journey for any Winter Olympian is long and winding. But for Shiva Keshavan, the trek he has taken from the foothills of the Himalayas to Sochi must at times feel like trying to conquer his own personal Mount Everest.
From a chance introduction to an adrenaline-fueled, dangerous sport, to money worries and the prospect of not having a national flag to compete under, the Indian luger has a remarkable tale of triumph against adversity.
It began 17 years ago, midway into his teens, when he was invited to an introductory session by Gunther Lemmerer, a former European champion who became a luge ambassador – developing teams not only in India but also Greece, Somalia and Bermuda.
Keshavan, a sporting youngster who played everything from football to gymnastics, was captivated immediately.
“The first thing they did was show us a video of the luge and bobsleigh, and then the movie of Cool Runnings,” he says, casting his mind back to his 15-year-old self. “For me, it wasn’t suddenly I was thinking that I want to go to the Olympics, it’s just I wanted to try it.”
Twenty years since the 1993 hit film told the unlikely story of the Jamaican four-man bobsleigh team’s bid to get to the 1988 Olympics in Calgary, Hollywood producers could have themselves a modern-day version.
While his introduction to luge was perhaps fortuitous, the immediate impact it had on him was abundantly clear. Of the boys in question that day, only Keshavan took up the sport with any real gusto.
Within less than a year, he was hurtling down the World Championship run at Innsbruck in Lemmerer’s native Austria, not as an official competitor but allowed to be a forerunner on the surface.
His time was quick enough to qualify for the Olympics but he needed five World Cup runs to be eligible. He duly obliged and, at the age of 16 – half the age and half the weight of three-time gold medalist Georg Hackl – Keshavan lined up for the 1998 Winter Olympics as India’s sole representative in Nagano, Japan.
He finished a creditable 28th.
Sochi will be his fifth Games, though this time he and three fellow Indians will be competing as independent athletes due to their country’s Olympic association failing to ratify its new constitution ahead of the opening ceremony on February 7.
He will continue a remarkable journey from those Himalayan foothills, where he grew up 2,500 meters above sea level.
The lure of such extreme sports was both in his genes and a strong part of his upbringing – his Indian father and Italian mother ran an adventure travel company.
Growing up, he and his friends would make their own skis from wood and metal sheets, as well as their own roller sleds. Keshavan still has a penchant to compete on the latter – on the internet there is a death-defying clip of him hurtling under a lorry and around traffic in his native India.
With no artificial luge course in India, he has mainly been based in Europe, but has recently training with the American luge team after finally overcoming his latest financial battle. For three years of this Olympiad it has been a struggle, but now he has the cash to compete.
“Right now, I have support from the International Olympic Committee solidarity program,” he explains. “They help out with a stipend per month, which reimburses me for some of my travel expenses. Then I have a travel partner in Swiss Air that help with flying me to a lot of destinations.
“There’s other sponsors too in MTS, a Russian communications company, and Coca-Cola, as well as something called Olympic Gold Quest in India.”
The one area where he does not have support is from the Indian Olympic Association, which was suspended from the IOC for not having its house sufficiently in order.
After being threatened with expulsion, its secretary general and president resigned and will be replaced at new elections on February 9.
“I don’t compete for money or for fame, it’s just representing my nation that keeps me going,” Keshavan says. “But it seems like I won’t be able to participate for my country.
“That’s disappointing but in terms of support, it has not changed. Athletes in India face complete apathy from the sports administrators, that is no different.
“In India, it’s a moment where people are really fed up with corruption in politics and sport. People are so disillusioned they think we can’t really change things by ourselves. With the IOC now involved, we hope that can mean some positive change.”
There may yet be an Indian link to his forays on the ice, which will see him travel at speeds of up to 135 kph (84 mph) this season. While Ferrari has been backing Italy’s bobsleigh bid for Sochi, and McLaren the aspirations of the British bobsleigh and skeleton competitors, Keshavan is hopeful the Force India Formula One team may follow suit. “We’re talking,” he says on the possible link.
Such a tie-up would be ideal for him as it is in terms of technology and equipment that he really lags behind the richer nations. He has his own research and development team made up of his wife Namita and brother-in-law, plus some friends with an engineering background. It’s not ideal but he has little choice.
“You can’t just buy a sled off a shelf – well, you can but not if you want to be fast,” he says. “So my brother-in-law and his engineering friends are working to make sure they can improve the equipment as much as I can.”
There is a sense that Keshavan relishes fighting the adversity – it has, he argues, made him stronger – but also he would dearly love to take on his peers with equal equipment when the finances allow. If that were the case, he believes he could aspire to his dream of an Olympic medal, which he still clings to.
That won’t come in Sochi but, with plans to continue for another five to seven years, another Olympiad awaits for him despite the inherent dangers of the sport.
At the last Olympics in Canada, Georgian luger Nodar Kumaritashvili lost his life after crashing during a training run in Whistler. It is the only tragedy that Keshavan has ever known in the sport and it understandably rocked him to the core.
“The danger is an important part of the sport, it’s always there,” he says. “You have crashes and injuries but never anything like that, though.
“It was such a huge shock to everybody. As athletes, we’re a close group and everyone was just dumbfounded. People couldn’t even talk – the atmosphere was silent. It was just a dreadful accident that happened.”
Keshavan is confident there will be no such tragic repeats in Russia’s first Winter Olympics, and is equally sure he will be constantly reminded of his introduction to luge.
“One of the first things people say is, ‘Have you seen Cool Runnings?” he says with a laugh.
India’s answer would dearly love to make his own mark next month.