NEW DELHI Sixteen years after hurtling down the ice on a borrowed luge at the 1998 Nagano Games, India's Shiva Keshavan will make his fifth Winter Olympic appearance in Sochi next month, still supported more by goodwill than the system.
Winter sports languish at the bottom of the pecking order in cricket-mad India, leaving athletes short on funding and crying out for attention.
Three weeks before the Sochi Games commence, two of Keshavan's skiing team mates are still waiting government funding to buy Olympic standard equipment.
"I felt like quitting once a few years back, when I had no money -- not just to carry on, but to even support myself for day-to-day expenses," the 32-year-old told Reuters in an email interview.
"Countries invest four years of technology and money and other resources, with the help of world class coaches and technology companies, to develop equipment.
"I have had no such backing, and I have been resorting to borrowed, rented and second-hand equipment in the past."
Born to an Indian father and Italian mother in a hamlet in the Himalayas, the luger somehow always found good Samaritans along the way.
"In the Nagano Games in 1998, I borrowed a sled from the Koreans free of cost, in Salt Lake 2002 and Torino 2006, the International Luge Federation (FIL) provided me with a sled, and in Vancouver 2010, a group of five Indian lawyers pooled in to buy me a sled," he said.
Keshavan did get some help from the sports ministry but it took a fund-raising campaign by Olympic Gold Quest, a non-profit foundation, to get the right equipment for Sochi.
"Support does not come easy for winter sports in India, but I know many athletes in summer sports too who face such problems," said Keshavan.
The lack of support prompted him to rebel against his federation over inferior attire for the opening ceremony in Vancouver four years ago.
Keshavan said there were "thousands of instances" of where India had shown a lack of interest in winter sports.
"But I prefer to remember the good moments which remind of how much support I do have," said the former continental champion, who won silver in last month's Asia Cup at Nagano.
UNDER OLYMPIC FLAG
Since making his Olympic debut as a wide-eyed 16-year-old, Keshavan has gone on to become the face of winter sports in India but is rankled by the fact that he and his compatriots will have to compete under the Olympic flag in Sochi.
"It is embarrassing, to say the least, that a great country like ours should be banned for serious reasons like ethics," he said, referring to the Olympic ban on India for electing corruption-tainted officials to its national committee.
"I am deeply saddened ... that some people think it is not important for our flag to be represented in an event like the Olympics."
Instead of the Indian tri-colour, the luger would seek inspiration from the special suit he will wear in Sochi.
Telecom company MTS is running an "India for Shiva" campaign under which anyone who shares Keshavan's stunt-filled video online will have their names put on his Olympic suit.
"I do not know the exact number, but there will be a few thousand names on my suit, which is currently under production in France," he said.
"I may not be allowed to wear the Indian colours as our country remains banned, but I will be wearing every name of every supporter at least."
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)
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