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48.9 seconds and it was all over. 48.9 seconds was the timing Olympic veteran Shiva Keshavan clocked in his third run at the Pyeongchang 2018 Olympics. With this, India's lone luger finally hung up his boots. A saga that had begun with him being the youngest person to ever qualify for the Winter Games in 1998, ended quite tamely. Shiva Keshavan representing India at the Winter Olympics has been a common sight for the past 6 editions of the multi-sport tournament; except in 2014 when he walked under the IOC's flag due to the temporary suspension of the Indian Olympic Association. In all these years, one cannot help but notice how below par India's performances in Winter Sports have been on world stages. The country's challenge at yet another Olympic event comes to an end with little to no redeeming factors yet the burning question still remains. Will India ever succeed in making a mark in Winter Sports? The predominant argument so far has been that ours is a tropical country where factors favourable for Winter Sports are scarce. For the most part, this is true. Shiva Keshavan's sport, Luge, can be held as a shining example of that. A quick search reveals that there are merely 18 artificial Luge tracks around the world with most of them concentrated in the Northern Hemisphere. A 19th track is currently in the pipeline for the country of China. So far, it is quite clear that India is not geographically equipped to hold proper National Championships in the country. Even if, by some miracle, national level tournaments were held abroad in association with other National Olympic Committees (NOC), one wonders if the discipline even has enough athletes from the country to even compete.
India's medals at the Winter Games: 0In a conversation to The Bridge back in November 2017, Shiva Keshavan had pointed out this exact conundrum. While he was still mulling over Pyeongchang being his sixth and final Olympic appearance, the tag of being India's 'lone luger' was one which hung heavy. 'The only way I can train the next Shiva Keshavan is if I find one. With a lack of natural infrastructure in the country, it becomes quite difficult,' he had said. Read more: 'I have been to 5 Olympics so far but this one might be my last' So far, prospects seem grim. And while discouraging a particular sport while it still has a scope is cruel and unthinkable, a look at a few official figures forces consideration in retrospect. For Pyeongchang 2018, each NOC had a cap of 10 athletes which was the maximum number of participants a country could ideally send to compete in Luge. The cap for Men's Singles was a total of three competitors. While it has already been established that India's harshly tropical conditions might, in fact, prevent a second luger from entering the fray anytime in the near future, it is safe to say that in all these years, Shiva Keshavan has had little competition from his countrymen. Despite this situation, which can only be categorised as the loss of a brilliant source of motivation, the luger from Manali has held his head up high when it comes to continental championships. The luger from Manali has held his head up high when it comes to continental championships. So far, Shiva Keshavan has been included under the National Sports Development Fund (NSDF) for three years since his first inclusion for the economic year of 2009-2010. Back then, he received an amount of INR 16,24,008/- under NSDF. For the fiscal year 2011-12, the number was INR 2,69,384. The year leading up to the Sochi Olympics was a disaster in terms of funds for the luger since his promised government assistance came through only after the Games were over. In the meantime, a successful crowdfunding campaign had enabled Shiva to participate in Sochi at a time when the IOA was temporarily suspended. The amount he received in 2014-15 made up for that gaffe, however, when a number to the tune of INR 16,75,672/- was made out to him as reported in the latest Annual Report made available on the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports website. Additionally, he was included in the Target Olympic Podium Scheme for the year 2016-17 which made him eligible for an amount of INR 10,00,000/- from the Government. Even more recently, Sports Minister Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore sanctioned an amount of 20 lakhs for him immediately before the 2018 Winter Games. There is nothing wrong with supporting an athlete. But, here, one must also take into account sports in India where there is an abnormally high level of competition at the National level. Take athletics for example. As per the latest available figures on the MYAS website, the number of athletes supported by NSDF is surprisingly low. The question we must then ask is, should sportspersons be held to similar standards when it comes to Government funding irrespective of the odds and competition they must beat before qualifying to represent the country? A look at his general performance at the Olympics is enough to make it clear that India never had a shot at a medal on the biggest stage of them all. Shiva Keshavan is undoubtedly a pioneer of Winter Sports in India. For a long time, his effort has been the only persistent contribution towards putting India on the Winter Sports map. But a look at his general performance at the Olympics is enough to make it clear that India never had a shot at a medal on the biggest stage of them all. This is not the fault of the athlete. To compete with top-level lugers one must have access to equally world standard facilities to ensure an adequate amount of practice before being taken seriously as a medal contender. And while Shiva's training sessions in Italy throughout his illustrious career have made him a consistent force to reckon with within the continent, it was never able to achieve any kind of standing on the World Stage.
What, then, should the solution be?It must be mentioned here that MYAS is not the only source of funds when it comes to athletes. The International Olympic Committee grants a certain amount to NOCs during Olympic years to cover major athlete costs. For the year between 2016 to March 2017, the Indian Olympic Association received an amount of INR 64,425,823 specifically for the purpose of the Rio Olympic Games from its international parent body. An additional amount of INR 65,554,348/- through sponsorships was made out to IOA. The expenses for the 2016 Games, however, amounted to INR 65,161,549/-. Since the IOA is not required to put up an audited break up of their finances on their website, questions remain about the money left over. Could that not be utilised to fund a greater number of athletes? The crux of the matter remains this. Should a better system of funding athletes be brought into place? And if so, what should the improved scheme's priority be? Funding sports where the country has a chance at an Olympic medal or ensuring mere participation at Olympic events? Is it possible and feasible for the Ministry of Sports to work together with the IOA when it comes to supporting the nation's sportspeople? It may not be clear right now as to who India's next big Winter Games name is going to be. Until a smarter system for support is put in place, however, India will have to remain contented with mediocrity when it comes to Winter Sports.