What is luge? Let’s find out from Shiva Keshavan

"For luge, you should have the right mental disposition, be at ease at high speed, be a little adventurous and your concentration has to be very high, because you are doing something dangerous. Then balance and coordination are very important — you have to move your body and drive the sled," says luge specialist Shiva Keshavan.

Shiva Keshavan concentrates hard during practice at the 2014 Sochi Olympics.   -  AP

The start is one of the important things for the luger. Once you have the momentum, it is basically using the natural forces, like the gravity.   -  Getty Images

For Shiva Keshavan, the journey of representing India in the Winter Olympics commenced in the snow-capped hills of Manali.

In an exclusive interview to Sportstar, Keshavan, the five-time Olympian, whose current aim is to represent India in PyeongChang 2018 Winter Olympics, speaks about luge, winter sports in India, the difficulties associated with it and being the first Indian to carry the national flag in the Winter Olympics, back in 1998 in Nagano, Japan.

Question: Before you picked up luge as a sport, you had won the Junior National Ski Championship. You never thought of continuing with skiing?

Answer: I was involved with a lot of sports during my childhood. Skiing was obviously one of them. I was also into hockey and athletics. Winter sports were more a passion. Skiing was something I would look forward to in winter. Also because I was brought up in Manali which is a ski destination in India. But, then I got a chance to participate in the luge camp in 1995 and as a result I developed an interest in luge. At that point it was more of a fun thing to do, there were no long-term goals as such. When I slowly started gaining interest in luge, I realised I had the potential.

What goes into the making of a luge professional?

Today, all kinds of sport need a certain kind of preparation, you need a certain amount of technical skill, good coaching, and equipment. Then, all that is connected by your hard work. Nothing is more important than hard work. Talent alone is only going to take you so far.

Specifically for luge, you should have the right mental disposition, be at ease at high speed, be a little adventurous and your concentration has to be very high, because you are doing something dangerous. Then balance and coordination are very important — you have to move your body and drive the sled.

As far as muscles and tendons are concerned, you need to be absolutely fit. The start is one of the most important things for the luger, it is the initial momentum. Once you have the momentum, it is basically using the natural forces, like the gravity and g-force. For that initial momentum you need to build up your body and for which you will need training.

You have trained on Himalayan roads with a makeshift sled. However, that is obviously not enough to train for the Olympics. How do you manage?

The first thing is to adapt to the tool at your disposal — the sled. I don’t have so many of the resources that many of the advanced nations in the sport have.

 

For a country like Germany, they have seven to eight coaches in one team. Their equipment is made by BMW. They have four tracks which are of World Cup-level. They have the association, and they don’t have to worry about salaries and many other things. I don’t have any of these facilities. However, the important thing is the love for the sport and the admission that you want to do something. There is no time to think if I had this, if I had that…

In that context, since we don’t have a luge track, the best way to get used to the speed or get the coordination which is required to steer is by modifying the sled a little bit so that we can even use it on our mountain roads. Obviously, not the ideal training method, but rather than waiting to go train in the tracks, this is definitely a good way and a lot of people get the feel. As a result, we have managed to generate interest for the sport here.

What about gear? You had to borrow the sled a couple of times in international events.

It has been a long journey. Initially, I had to rely on renting equipment. Later, I started understanding the working of it and built my sled. Currently, I am working with Duncan Kennedy. He is my coach. He is the former technical director of the US team and has been a very successful athlete himself. He has a certain technical knowhow; I have a certain experience and ideas of what I want. So we have been trying to build equipment which will suit me and we have managed to have a collaboration with an American University, Clarkson. They have given a lot of technical advice related to the sled, with which we have been able to get it manufactured.

May be somewhere in the future, if I am able to get an Indian company, whether it is a car manufacturer or a university, a collaboration of some kind, to make something over here, that will be the next step.

It is a highly technical sport. How expensive is it and what are the financial returns?

As a professional athlete when you are representing your country abroad, there is a standard cost across all sports. For my sport, there are 10 international events a year, which means there are 10 places you have to travel to during the year. So that is costly because travelling to these places, flight tickets, staying in hotels, it is costly. Then the participation in the competition is expensive. Secondly, I have a foreign coach and the coach’s salary is also there. These are things for which I look to sponsors and government support.

How difficult is it to get a sponsor?

It has been tough, I won’t deny that. However, the situation has been changing since I started. When I started in 1997, it was very difficult. But now in India, you do see companies looking to support other sports. There are so many opportunities which have opened up in different sports — badminton, shooting, golf, football — it is definitely easier, but at the same time it is difficult because you do not have a proper set-up. There is a lack of sports management companies which understand other sports.

Currently, there is only one company which has been with me for a long time, i.e., Coca-Cola. Apart from that, during the Olympics it is not difficult to find sponsors, but post Games it is really difficult. It is unfortunate because this is the time when we should get the most training, getting the most advantage out of the time we have, rather than during the Olympic year. At the moment, I am still looking for a title sponsor.

In June 2015, you had mentioned the difficulties faced by you and how the Indian government is yet to help you. Is it still the same?

Currently the situation is that the government has not paid for a single expense of mine, in terms of travel or training or boarding and lodging abroad. They have, however, given me Rs. 10 lakh for a coach, so that is why I have Duncan on board. However, that is not the full amount of his salary; at least there has been a start.

Did you approach organisations like the Olympic Gold Quest and the Anglian Medal Hunt Company to help you?

I had approached OGQ and in fact they did support me for the 2014 Sochi Olympics, which is good. May be we can do it again. But, winter sports are different in a way. Unfortunately, we don’t have many people in India who understand winter sports. There are only a handful of us, who have reached a certain level. It is up to us now to help the younger generation and make things easier for them.

Apart from training myself, I am working with the federation. I am also trying to get the government on board; to have a long-term programme and to train the youngsters. It would make no sense if the same mistakes persisted, which happened to me, in terms of funding and things like that.

We do not see a lot of Indians take up winter sports professionally. What do you think are the reasons? There are only a few winter sportspersons — Murlidhar Negi, Yuvavanti Negi, Nikita Thakur, Jahnavi Rawat and Dev Thakur in luge and Nadeem Iqbal (cross country) and Himanshu Thakur (Alpine skiing).

We still do not have an advanced winter sports industry in India. The potential is there. The winter sports industry overseas is huge. We need to have that infrastructure. Once we are a winter sport destination, maybe people will be ready to try out the sport and then we can figure out who have the chances in the sport.

Sports like cricket and hockey, anyone can play anywhere in India. Understandably, the interest is more. However, I want to see the younger generations having more interest, anyone who has interest in extreme sports. Right now the younger generation is taking up a lot of adventure sports.

Ahead of the Sochi Olympics, Dogecoin community raised 7000 USD to help you take part in the Games. How did that happen?

There was some article online which was about me not having money to go to Sochi and having proper equipment and so on. That was also the time when I was speaking to the then Sports Minister and I was trying to get funded by the government. That year the government did fund me, even though it came a little late.

When this online community raised the money, I did not accept it. I gave it back to them as I was already getting it from the government.

We actually donated it to a children and animals charity, which the same online community was funding.

In any case, it showed that how much people care. The fact that people I did not know or had interaction with raised money to send me to the Olympics; it is a great feeling actually.

Luge is a dangerous sport. One wrong move and you can end up with life-threatening injuries. That has never bothered you?

No, actually it never bothered me because I always have faith in my abilities to a certain point. Beyond that I am a person who believes if something has to happen to you then it will. I concentrate more on what I can do — to keep getting better. Obviously, I take the necessary precautions, but fear has never stopped me from trying to push the limits. And that is it all about, you have to try and take risks to improve yourself, to get better. The people who understand that, they grow a lot faster.

What about the death of Nodar Kumaritashvili? The committee stated that the inexperience of the luger was the reason behind the crash, whereas many still believe that the track was unsafe. What is your view about the incident?

Nodar was a friend. The incident impacted not just me, but everybody in the luge community. Vancouver (2010 Olympics) was a tough time for all of us. I was there outside when that happened. When a crash happens, there is always a fault. Whether it is a driving error or an equipment fault or a track error. The fact is that the venues must always be engineered in a certain way to account for certain mistakes. Definitely, that incident was an eye-opener for a lot of international federations. They have put many more stringent safety features in place since that accident.

However, since the time I have started, which is probably the last 30 years in luge, there has been only one fatal incident and when you compare that statistics to other sports, it is nothing exceptional. But, no doubt, it is a dangerous sport and we have to have that appetite for risk or danger.

In 2009, 10 people formed the Junior National Luge team to train in Japan, an initiative taken by you. Have there been more of such initiatives?

That team took part in two different editions of the Asian championships. Unfortunately, since then there has been no programme from the association or the government to take forward such teams, to train juniors. I am a one-off case, my mission is to get better and represent the country in luge. I have dedicated my entire focus to this. It is not something that you can ask somebody to do. It is only fair that the government should at least take care of the expenses of the athletes who are representing the country. That is the minimum to ask for. Once the sport is popular, one can do fundraising and do a lot of initiatives. Athletes should at least be given postings and salaries like all other countries do. That is something in sport we have to learn a lot in India.

Where do you see yourself in future?

I am actually waiting for someone to come along to whom I can pass on a lot of my knowledge, expertise and technical information about the sport. There is a plan in place. I have been working on it for many years. I have also presented it to the government and associations. I am waiting for that moment when any of these things are implemented and I can work as a coach in training the younger generation. To have an academy will be a dream come true.

What is your schedule for the coming season?

So far my vision is the 2018 Olympics. Everything I am doing right now is in one way or the other connected to the goal of that Olympic Games. Having said that, I still don’t have the necessary budget to do that, it is still just a dream.

This year, I have three World Cups in Germany and the World Championships, which is also in Germany. So I have four races to look forward to from now to the end of February. After that there is an Olympic track to be inaugurated in South Korea and only a few athletes from the world get the privilege to go and test this track. I hope to be one of the athletes.

You have won many awards and achievements in the last two decades — two gold medals in the Asia Cup, the first Indian to qualify for the Winter Olympic Games and recently a silver in the Asian Championship. Despite all that, the closest you have come to national recognition are nominations in 2012 for the Arjuna Award and the Parshuram Award. Do you feel hurt?

It is quite funny. The way I see it once you have a criteria, whoever meets that criteria, should receive that award or whatever it is. I know what I have done, I know what these achievements are worth and it is just a matter of time when the government or the system realises it. I might be given these awards in the future. My main concern is to be the best in the world, to be as good as I can be. Everything comes next.

What do you plan to do after retirement?

I would definitely like to be involved in the development of winter sports in India.

Having seen the world of winter sports across the globe, I know India has a huge potential. I also know the benefits winter sports can bring to rural areas like mine. I would definitely like to see that happen.

Apart from luge, what else defines Shiva Keshavan?

Apart from that, I have a family. I have a wife and a seven-month-old daughter. They are also very important to me. After luge, they are the most important things in my life and on my mind.

(As appeared in sportstar.thehindu.com on January 14, 2016)