Shiva Keshavan sees Khelo India Winter Games as a step forward, but a lot still needs to be achieved

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By the time Jeremy Bujakowski became the first Indian to make it to the Winter Olympics in 1964, the event had already entered its 9th edition and the Nordic countries had gained upper hand over their Summer Olympic topper rivals. Truly a rich man's indulgence, it was a no-show for India till then.

To be fair to India, this was also the time when other Asian countries had not achieved anything significant in the Winter Games, except for Japan, which had the distinction of participating in every edition and also had a silver medal in the slalom event in 1956 to boast about; China had no participation yet. 

By the time the 90s arrived, Asia, primarily Japan, China, and South Korea were seen as serious contenders for medals in almost every event and later went on create a few world records along the way. The winners had started coming from Oceania as well while the Indians struggled to merely participate. While our neighbours had cracked the 'Winter Code', we would still be discussing the common hindrances of lack of support, infrastructure, finance, and sponsors, that our athletes faced if at all anyone knew about the existence of these sports played on ice.

Finally, in the 1998 Nagano Games, India found a gem in then-16-year-old Shiva Keshvan who became the face of luge and winter sports in the country for a couple of decades. He mastered a sport for which there aren't many takers here till today but went on to achieve a few firsts. Just being the best in Asia four times is a feat that doesn't seem to be repeated anytime soon, or so does participating in six Winter Olympics. But despite this, for no fault of his own, his performances could not really provide a boost to winter games in the country; unfortunately, the majority of sports aficionados here would not even know the names of five winter sports, luge being one of them.

Cut to the present day, the sports ministry conducted the third edition of the Khelo India Winter Games, where over 1500 school students participated in countries biggest winter sporting event, with Jammu & Kashmir lifting the trophy again. A few sports like skiing, alpine skiing, nordic skiing, snow rugby, ice stock sport, snow baseball, mountaineering, snowshoe running, ice hockey, figure skating, and speed skating were played over the course of four days to decide the winners, while a few of them were overlooked and not made a part of the Games, including luge, where India perhaps produced its best performances at the Olympics. 

But, in a country starved of competitions in winter sports, the Khelo India Games certainly comes as a huge relief, and the efforts of the sports ministry should truly be appreciated. On the flip side, this should only be seen as a start and nothing beyond that. Keshavan, who has the expertise to make India a big name in these sports too, echoes the same sentiment. "With the Khelo India Games, investments are there from the government to set up the infrastructure and the events which is great to see.

"But the reach of these games is still limited because I think more than double the number of participants can come and make their presence felt. Many federations couldn’t get their players because of the limits imposed, but this is a huge start with huge enthusiasm, and more importantly, it improves the feasibility of the event. So all this should be looked at as a big positive," Keshavan told SportsCafe in an exclusive chat.

One aspect where no progress has been achieved so far but could be done sometime soon is a national winter sports body, which could bring a structure in place for the sports and the sportspersons. For now, it is shots being fired in the air without a proper direction and plan, which is not going to reap many benefits. "We need more important structural reforms. First of all, there is still no national winter sports body that is recognised by the government, which is a huge drawback for winter sports, and so we are not able to participate in either the long-term development plan that the government has or any of the athletes will be able to get fundings from the government. But I think these things are imminent, because the discussions have started along these lines, so hope to see more change over there."

For someone like Keshavan, who has a blueprint ready with him, to develop winter sports in the country, the key is not to complicate a lot and to have realistic targets too. One of the aspects he touches upon is the improvement of ice skating in India, which is in sync with the available infrastructure, and a few talented athletes as well. As per the expert, it is one of those sports where our boys and girls can be a force to reckon with, if given proper training, in the next six-seven years. He also cites the example of American gold medalist Erin Jackson, who graduated from being a roller speed skater to an ice speed skater in a span of a few months.

"Ice skating has come up in a big way because there have been a lot of natural ice skating tracks created and maintained in the colder areas of our country and Gulmarg itself has a covered natural track. Similar projects are already in place for rinks to be built elsewhere, however at the same time, the Dehradun tracks, for example, lie unused, and that is something that needs to be looked at.

"Erin is one of those athletes who has shown us all that the transition can be made. We have a huge roller skating community in India, it’s a popular sport even though it's not a winter sport, so similar things can happen in different sports as well," he added.

Meanwhile, apart from the million other problems that Indian winter athletes face, another glaring issue is they only maybe do skill-based training during the winter, for a couple of months at the max. For the rest of the summer months, a sizeable amount of time just goes to waste which should be utilised to get fitter and stronger. That is where they can even train with the summer athletes.  

"We lack annual training programs also, so while many winter sports athletes spend that one or two winter months on skis and skates, most of them in the summer do nothing to improve their skills. I am talking about a typical strength and conditioning plan and working on other technical aspects over the summer, so that whole component is missing and that is something that can easily be integrated. We already have SAI centres and national camps for so many sports. Take the winter sports athletes as well and let them train in the summer and get fit and strong and in the winter, you will see a marked improvement in their performance."

In short, it doesn't really require a Herculean effort to make India a better winter sporting nation but does need a tremendous amount of vision and persistence by the ones on the top. But one wonders if that is going to be a reality anytime soon, since our summer sports, most of them, aren't in great health either. They seem to be hoping to go through a positive turnaround, while its winter cousin seems to be standing in a never-ending queue.  

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