Indian flag hopes on ice ahead of Sochi Games
New Delhi: He may be India`s main medal hope in February`s Winter Olympics but Shiva Keshavan still doesn`t know if he will compete under the national flag when he hurtles down the ice on his luge in Sochi.
Keshavan, a veteran of four previous Olympics, is well accustomed to obstacles in his career representing a country better known for its sun-baked cricket pitches than frozen speed tracks.
At his first Olympics in Nagano, Japan, in 1998, the then 16-year-old competed with a borrowed sled, an oversized jacket and ill-fitting shoes.
And he was only able to enter the 2010 Vancouver Games when a group of Indian lawyers clubbed together to buy him a $10,000 replacement for a sled that he had smashed in training just before departing for Canada.
But having secured financial backing from Bollywood stars, the proud patriot`s biggest worry this time is whether he will be able to represent India, given its current suspension from the Olympic movement.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) froze India`s membership in December 2012 after its national association elected a number of tainted officials to key posts.
The officials in the row included Indian Olympic Association (IOA) secretary-general Lalit Bhanot who faces corruption charges linked to the chaotic 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi.
The IOA did agree earlier this month to revise its constitution, keep tainted officials out, and hold fresh elections.
But the elections are not due to take place until February 9 -- two days after the Sochi Games begin -- and the IOC has already ruled out lifting India`s suspension until new officials are in place.
IOC president Thomas Bach has indicated that while Keshavan would not be barred from competition, he and three fellow Indian qualifiers -- all of whom are skiers -- would be officially classified "as independent athletes under the Olympic flag".
"Indian athletes can participate in the Winter Games if they qualify," Bach announced on December 10.
"But if there is no election before Sochi which meets the approval of the IOC, there will be no Indian flag in the Sochi Games, there will be no mention of India."
Keshavan, who is currently training in Japan, has expressed hope that the situation will be resolved before competition begins on February 7 and that he can take part in the Games as an Indian athlete.
"There is no greater joy for a sportsman than to compete for his country," Keshavan said in a recent interview.
"It can be quite embarrassing when people ask why India has been suspended."
Now aged 32, Keshavan is at the top of his game and his victories at the Asian championships in 2011 and 2012, and a silver in the recent 2013 edition, have raised hopes that he could become the first Indian to go home from the winter games with a medal.
Born in a small village in the foothills of the Himalayas, Keshavan grew up in an area which is a hub for winter sports.
His penchant for risk-taking was evident from an early age when he and his boyhood friends used to make their own skis and sleds out of wood.
The son of an Italian mother and Indian father, Keshavan has no doubt where his loyalties lie.
"I was offered Italian citizenship, but I refused because I am an Indian and want to spend my life here," Keshavan, who lives in the northern state of Himachal Pradesh, once told a leading agency in an interview.
"So what if they don`t know what a luge is."
While winter sports struggle for publicity in the cricket-mad country, Keshavan is something of a cult hero.
`Slumdog Millionaire` actress Freida Pinto is among a group of Bollywood stars who have raised nearly $15,000 to enable Keshavan to compete on a world-class sled in Russia.
Sports Minister Jitendra Singh has supported calls to the IOA to advance its elections for the benefit of athletes headed for Sochi.
"We are making efforts to persuade the IOA to have elections by the last week of January or the first few days of February," Singh said.
"Once the elections are held, I am sure our suspension will be lifted."
But with the IOA in disarray, sources within the association said no decision had been made to hold the elections earlier than scheduled.
"It`s a long and complicated process, nothing has been finalised yet," one board member told AFP on condition of anonymity.