Indian luge pioneer fears slide into oblivion
MUMBAI (Reuters) - On more than one occasion, luger Shiva Keshavan has been on the brink of quitting due to India's frosty attitude towards winter sports, but the pioneer's passion and devotion are driving him towards a fifth Olympics.
Keshavan was just 16 when he participated in the 1998 Winter Olympics at the Japanese city of Nagano and since then he has represented India at three more Games.
The 31-year-old retained his Asia Cup title in Nagano last December with an Asian track record of 49.590 seconds but the feat has failed to translate into recognition or support in India, where winter sports remain at a very nascent stage.
"When an athlete represents his country, he is like an ambassador for his nation," Keshavan told Reuters in an interview. "It is normally expected that your foreign trips, your training and your basic expenses are borne by your country.
"It's actually very sad to see that this mentality is not shared by our sports administrators.
"When I go and ask our sports administrators to pay for our training expenses, it seems like I am asking for a personal favour."
Last month, Keshavan lost his coach Yann Fricheteau, a former Olympian, after the Frenchman quit due to the non-payment of his salary.
"Over the years, I have come to know of the government schemes and funds that are meant for supporting the athletes and I am eligible for so many of these things," he said by phone.
"I have been applying but despite that, nothing is happening. Despite promises, nothing has materialised and it has merely stayed at words and promises."
The International Olympic Committee granted the luger the Olympic Solidarity Scholarship on Monday which will help him travel and participate in the test event and the World Cup final, a mandatory qualifying race for next year's Sochi Games.
But having reached the top of Asia, Keshavan said it was impossible for him to raise his performance to the next level without government support.
"I have made a program... I need training time, I need exposure to the international venues and I need to have a coach," he said after a training stint at Albertville in France.
"It's quite bizarre that until now I have never had a (full-time) coach, which is a fundamental requirement for any level of any sport."
Keshavan said on more than one occasion he had asked himself whether all the trouble was worth it.
"Quitting has not just crossed my mind, sometimes I have gone through phases when it was physically impossible for me to compete," he said.
"I had no choice but to stay back and contemplate what the next step is going to be. I thought if the situation remains as it is, I would not be able to continue the sport."
Born to an Indian father and Italian mother, Keshavan does not rue a decision to decline an offer to represent the Italian flag more than a decade ago.
"I never gave that (representing Italy) much thought to be honest. It was an offer that was made to me in 2002," he said. "Of course, it would have been an opportunity.
"But the only way to fulfil my dreams and that of the area where I grew up, was by representing my own country."
Born in the North Indian hill station of Manali, pursuing winter sports was a natural choice for Keshavan and he thinks his struggle for recognition was down to the fact he has been the pioneer for luging in the country.
"It's just a matter of time before the infrastructure reaches the mountains," he said.
"I think it's a tremendous opportunity for the community and for us that winter sports can come in and change their lives.
"I am a bit unlucky that being the first one, I won't be able to use much of that infrastructure, but it will be a help for the next generations for sure."
(Editing by John O'Brien)
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