Indian Athletes Forced to do “Walk of Shame” in Sochi

Shiva Keshavan, India’s most prominent Winter Olympics athlete, has no personal coach. He has no funds either. His training is largely supported by private donations and he built his luge sled in his garage. Because India has no luge track, he often trains on wheels, shooting down winding Himalayan roads dodging goats and noisy trucks.

Despite his perseverance, Keshavan won’t be waving the tricolor Indian flag when he and two teammates enter the stadium in the Russian city of Sochi for the Games’ Opening Ceremonies.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) suspended the Indian Olympic Association a year ago for violations of its charter, including electing leaders with pending criminal charges. India’s Olympics officials failed to fix the mess in time for the Opening Ceremonies on Feb. 7.

That means the country’s three Olympic contenders, Keshavan and two skiers, can compete in Sochi as independent athletes, but they are not allowed to carry the Indian flag or wear their country’s symbol. Their national anthem will not be played during medal ceremonies.

The Times of India called the Opening Ceremonies India’s “Walk of Shame.”

“It’s quite sad,” Keshavan said, in a Skype interview from the French mountain town where he is training.

“Rather than showcasing our country, it will be a shameful moment in the history of our country’s sport.”

The association could have solved the problem by calling new elections before the Games began, said sportswriter Boria Majumdar, co-author of “Olympics: The India Story.”

“It’s clearly a case of placing self-interest and ego over the national interest,” Majumdar said. “And the Indian athletes are the sacrificial lambs.”

Association officials, who did not return telephone calls, appeared to be in no hurry to get back in the IOC’s good graces in time for Sochi.

“Yes, it is sad that this is the first time ever that the Indian contingent will not be carrying the national flag during the Winter Olympics,” acting president Vijay Kumar Malhotra told the Outdoor Journal this month. “However, the Indian Winter Olympics athletes don’t stand a chance of winning any medals, either.”

For a country of more than 1 billion people, India has a woefully low Olympic medal count, with just 26 in all and none from the Winter Olympics. Of the countries that have won Olympic bronze, silver or gold, it ranks at the bottom in medals per capita, analysts say. The national obsession is cricket — not an Olympic sport.

Critics say the country has long failed to support its athletes with infrastructure and training, particularly in winter sports. In recent years, however, that has begun to change,and India bagged six medals at the London Olympics in 2012, its highest total ever.

“It’s an enormous country. There’s no reason why Indians can’t be as good as anybody else in these sports,” said David Wallechinsky, president of the International Society of Olympic Historians.

Keshavan, 32, a native of the northern Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, will be competing in his fifth Olympic Games for India. In his first appearance, as a 16-year-old in Nagano, Japan in 1998, he was India’s sole athlete. He won the gold medal in luge in the Asia Cup in 2011 and 2012, and a silver last year. He placed 27th at the Luge World Cup in Austria in November.

Because he can’t wear an Indian uniform in the Opening Ceremonies, he’ll don a special cap made from red, gold and yellow patterned fabric symbolizing his home village. And he will compete in a special luge suit made of fabric signed by his fans.

“There’s nothing more we can do right now, it seems,” Keshavan said. “You can only do your best. At the end of the day, all you can say is, I put down my run, and I’ve been training for years for this moment. That is the satisfying feeling.”

For more on this story visit: Annie Gowen, Washington Post