In search of glory
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In search of glory

Winter games in India face neglect, yet three sportspersons from the country have managed to get selected for the Winter Olympic Games to be held next month in Russia. Armed with sledges and skis, they are ready to break the ice. By Saurabh Duggal

chandigarh Updated: Jan 19, 2014 16:27 IST
Saurabh Duggal
Saurabh Duggal
Hindustan Times

Despite a small window period available for training of winter sports in the country, a lack of basic infrastructure for winter games, and above all, the recent suspension of the Indian Olympic Association by the International Olympic Council, the three Indian sportspersons shortlisted to participate in the upcoming Winter Olympic Games, to be held in Sochi, Russia, next month, are in high spirits.

To compete among the best at the world’s most prestigious sporting arena for the winter games that start on February 7 and go on till February 23, the three-member Indian contingent hopes to set records, win medals and make the nation proud, even if it doesn’t get to walk under its national flag.

We profile the three Indian participants: Asian luge medalist Shiva Keshvan, from Manali (who would be competing in the Winter Olympic Games for the fifth time), Himanshu Thakur, also from Manali, and Nadeem Iqbal from Jammu & Kashmir, as they talk about the little known sports and their urge to win.

Shiva Keshavan, 32

Category: Luging

Despite there being no facility with which to improve his game to match international standards, Shiva Keshavan is amongst the best lugers in the Asian continent and vying for a podium finish in the sport when he participates in the Winter Olympic Games next month. It is Shiva’s fifth successive attempt at the Olympics, and the Manali boy is every bit excited. “Every Olympics is unique and it takes many years of struggle to get up there. It is always a new and exhilarating feeling,” says the country’s most seasoned winter games athlete. Born to an Italian mother and Indian father, Shiva has now had over 17 years of experience in international sports.

However, things are a little different now. “This time is slightly different because there is a mixed feeling of disappointment for being denied the right to walk under India’s flag as the Indian Olympic Association is facing suspension by the International Olympic Council,” he adds.

In Shiva’s hometown Manali, children are familiar with self-made wooden sledges – one of their many toys – yet, the sportsperson had no idea what the sport luge was all about until he was introduced to it at a camp in Panchkula, near Chandigarh, in 1995. A form of sledging on an ice track in which speed can touch up to 140 km/hour, luging soon had the young boy hooked. Three years later, Shiva became the youngest ever luge Olympian when he carried the tri-colour at the Winter Olympic Games at Nagano, Japan.

Recalling his first brush at luging, Shiva says, “I was about 13 when I was the junior national champion in skiing. At that time, the International Luge Federation (FIL) had organised talent scout camps in several countries, including India. My school, The Lawrence School, Sanawar, sent me for the camp and it was the first time that I went down on a street luge (a dry run of sledging with roller blades beneath it). We were shown videos of luging and a movie called Cool Runnings, that caught our imagination. From the camp, I was picked by the FIL and sent for further training to Austria. I was fast enough then and encouraged to try and qualify for the Olympics by participating in five mandatory World Cups, which I did. I finally became the youngest ever luge Olympian at the Nagano Olympic Games in 1998.”

"Now, it is really amazing to see how far I have come since I first piloted my sledge. I never imagined I would reach so far despite all the obstacles I had to face," adds the winter games Olympian who endorses brands such as MTS, Coca-Cola India and Swiss International Air Lines.

More recently, Shiva won a silver medal in the Asian Championship. An Asian speed record holder (for speeding up to 134 km/hour), he is one of our best bets.

Himanshu Thakur, 20

Category: Skiing

Children in the nearby villages of Manali take to skiing like ducks to water. But, to achieve excellence in the sport, they have to look outside the country. To turn his dream of making his son a world class skier turn true, Roshan Lal Thakur sent Himanshu, then 13, to Nagano, Japan, on a three-month training course in 2007. Himanshu’s struggle to become an Olympian skier had begun.

In the second week of training, Himanshu met with an accident while skiing and broke his thigh bone. He had to undergo a surgery and was hospitalised for almost a month before he could return to India. But, skiing was by now in his blood, so not only was Himanshu back on the slopes by the next winter, he also made his international debut at the International Children’s Skiing Championship in Italy in 2008. Last month, the skier achieved the qualifying marks to be a part of the upcoming Winter Olympic Games.

As Roshan Lal recalls the obstacles faced by his son, he comes across as a man who has strengthened his spirit. “When Himanshu met with an accident in Japan, I was confident about his comeback to the game. But, because nobody from the family could fly to Japan to be with him due to visa formalities, I had a hard time explaining to his mother that he was in good hands. She is a mother after all and wasn’t satisfied until she saw him back at home,” says Lal, who is also the secretary-general of the Winter Games Federation of India.

Making it to the Olympics is no mean feat and Himanshu had to make his share of sacrifices. Long training stints meant education had to take a back seat, apart from the family facing the task of arranging funds since no financial aid for the athletes’ training has been offered by the sports ministry. A ski kit comparable to international standards costs almost `5 lakh and a player needs at least two-three pairs of skis to compete in a competition like the Olympics. "Last year, I was out most part of the year as I competed in 41 international races," says Himanshu, a resident of Bharu village in Manali. "This year, I am to appear for the Class 12 board exams. But, because of the Olympics, I have requested the Himachal board to let me take my exams in March," he says.

Nadeem Iqbal, 30

Category: Crosscountry skiing

For this resident of Bharot, a remote village in district Rajouri, Jammu & Kashmir, joining the army was a means to getting employed, especially because Nadeem Iqbal is the eldest son in the family. Having lost his father at an early age, he had to support his family financially. However, what he couldn’t foresee was getting into a sports discipline that he had not known of before and which would lead him to the lane of fame.

After joining the Jammu and Kashmir Light Infantry in 2003, Nadeem’s levels of physical fitness got the attention of the Army’s High Altitude Warfare School’s (HAWS) instructor. He was selected to be trained in high altitude warfare and develop ideas to fight in difficult terrains. As a result, skiing became a part of his life. However, a medal in the 2008 Winter National Games in Gulmarg turned skiing into a passion for Nadeem.

The skier achieved the qualifying marks for the Olympics in cross-country skiing in France in December. “A medal in the nationals completely changed my perspective towards the sport and I started pursing it with an aim of achieving greater heights. Later, finishing fourth in the 2011 Asian Winter Games in Almaty, Kazakhstan, made me realise that qualifying for the Olympics is within my reach,” says Nadeem, who is the first Kashmiri soldier to make it to the Winter Olympic Games. The skier acknowledges that it hasn’t been easy, especially when “looking at the conditions and facilities that we have for the winter games in the country”. “Making it to the Olympics is a big task. But now that I am there, I will give it my best shot,” resolves Nadeem, now a havaldar in the army.

Meanwhile, Nadeem’s entry into the Olympics has motivated other skiers at HAWS to excel at the international level. “Here, we have a window training period of only about three-four months to ski in. Despite these constraints, qualification for the Olympics is a big achievement,” says Col Satya Pal Malik, in-charge of the Army ski team.

Why is india out?

This year would be a first when India’s athletes in the Winter Olympic Games would not be competing under the national flag. Indian athletes would instead be participating in the Games under the Olympic flag as individual participants because of the suspension of the Indian Olympic Association by the International Olympic Council in December 2012. The suspension happened due to the government’s alleged interference in the autonomy of the IOA, and later because the IOA elections were not held as per the IOC charter.

India’s history at the Winter Olympic Games

* Jeremy Bujakowski was the first Indian athlete (of Polish descent) to compete in the Winter Olympics. Later, India competed in the Olympics in 1988, after a gap of 20 years. Shailaja Kumar, the first Indian woman to participate in the Winter Olympics, was a part of the three-member contingent that competed that year. Till date, the country’s biggest contingent has comprised four athletes.
* 1964: Jeremy Bujakowski (Alpine Skiing)
* 1968: Jeremy Bujakowski (Alpine)
* 1988: Shailaja Kumar, Gul Dev, Kishir Rahtna (Alpine Skiing)
* 1992: Nanak Chand, Chuni Lal (Alpine Skiing)n 1998: Shiva Keshavan (Luging)
* 2002: Shiva Keshavan (Luging)
* 2006: Shiva Keshavan (Luging), Neha Ahuja, Hira Lal (Alpine Skiing), Bahadur G (Cross Country)
* 2010: Shiva Keshavan (Luging), Jamyang Namgial (Alpine Skiing), Tashi Lundup (Cross Country)
* 2014: Shiva Keshavan (Luging), Himanshu Thakur (Alpine Skiing), Nadeem Iqbal (Cross Country)

Know your winter Sports

Luging: A part of the Winter Olympic Games discipline since 1964, the sport of ludge has a person (or two) on a sled. It can be performed in supine (face up) or feet first position and steering is done by flexing the sled’s runners with the calf of each leg or exerting pressure of the opposite shoulder on the seat. Of the three Olympic sliding sports — bobsleighing, skeleton and luging — it is luging that is the fastest and the most dangerous. In the last edition of the Olympics in Vancouver, a luge athlete died after a fatal accident. Lugers can reach speeds of upto 140 km/hour (87 mph). Germany, Italy and Austria are the best countries in the discipline.

Giant Slalom skiing: It is a part of the alpine skiing event in which is skiing is done between sets of poles spaced at a greater distance to each other as compared to slalom skiing. It is a technical event in alpine skiing racing and a part of the Winter Olympics since 1952.

Cross country skiing: It is a part of Nordic skiing and done on a long circuit by a participant propelling himself or herself using skies and poles. It has been a part of the Olympics discipline since 1924.

The not-so-popularWinter Olympics

Similar to the summer Olympics, the Winter Olympic Games are held once in four years, having first taken place in 1924. Until 1992, both the summer and winter games used to be held in the same calendar year. After 1992, they began to be held in separate four-year calendar.

What’s special about the Sochi Winter Olympics?

It is the 22nd edition of the Winter Olympic Games that would be held in Sochi, Russia, from February 7 to 23. In the multi-discipline quadrennial event, almost 2,500 athletes from over 90 countries would compete in 98 events in 15 different sporting disciplines. Originally budgeted at US$ 12 billion, various factors caused the budget to expand to over US$ 51 billion, making the 2014 Winter Olympic Games the most expensive Olympics in history.

First Published: Jan 18, 2014 15:12 IST