By Amanpreet Singh
New Delhi, September 27: Winter sport athletes of India are feeling neglected when a booming industry could have been created courtesy the enchanting Himalayan range, reckons Shiva Keshavan, who waited till the end of his 25-year long career to get recognition for his achievements.
Keshavan, the youngest ever luger to compete at Winter Olympics as a 16-year-old in Nagano, Japan in 1998, recently received the prestigious Arjuna award, the first for a winter sport athlete.
The 39-year-old luger, who retired after the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea said the honour has created some hope for the neglected lot.
"Winter sports athletes feel neglected due to the lack of awareness, understanding or attention from the administration. This Arjuna recognition is like a ray of hope for everyone," Keshavan told PTI from his village near Manali.
"I am surprised that winter sports has not boomed in India yet, considering that it is a multi-billion dollar global industry.
"With my experience of travelling to winter sports venues around the world, I can tell you that the Himalayas in India provide the best natural environment for these activities.
"However, we need to invest in world-class sports infrastructure first so that the sport becomes accessible and become the base for sustainable tourism."
There are four winter sport federations enjoying full membership of the Indian Olympic Association (IOA), but they are not recognised by the Sports Ministry.
This means athletes struggle for funds and their progress suffers due to the lack of proper infrastructure.
"At the same time the central government has started investing in Khelo India Winter Games and creating infrastructure, which is a big step forward," he said.
He explained why India could be an excellent destination for winter sport, which would also result in promoting tourism.
"The entire surrounding mountains of the Kullu valley are great locations. You have the Chandrakani range, the Bara Banghal range, the Friendship range, just to name a few. Then there is the entire Lahaul and Spiti valleys that are now accessible through the Atal tunnel. These areas have thousands of hectares of winter sport terrain.
"Indoor winter sports such as ice skating, ice hockey, curling have great potential in urban areas as well, like Shimla, Dharamsala and Manali."
While Keshavan is extremely pleased that the central government recognised his achievements, it baffles him that his own state government has not taken much note of his efforts.
He is a six-time Olympian and has won 10 medals, including four gold and as many silver, at the Asian Championships and Asia Cup. And yet, he has not been considered by the Himachal government for the Parshuram award, the state's highest sports award.
The HP government's sports award policy states that any athlete who wins medals at Asian Games and Commonwealth Games is entitled to cash prizes.
Keshavan's medals are at the Asian level but he did not win them at the Asian Winter Games because in most of its eight editions, luge -- which is his event -- did not feature.
In this discipline, an athlete slides on a luge supine (face up) and feet first. A luger steers by using the calf muscles.
He said, "In winter sports there are no regular Asian Games. Luge was not part of those Games when at least I was an active athlete. It should not be made an excuse. They should look at main international events."
He is also a seven-time national champion and HP's policy has provision to honour them with cash awards.
"There are a number of factors why the H.P govt has not yet recognised my achievements. I think the main reason is the lack of official systems in place to implement the vision of our existing state sports policy.
"Things like cash awards or the Parashuram award are mentioned in our policy but the actual implementation is not carried out. I was nominated for the Parashuram award in 2012. I had also applied for funding and cash awards but none had come through yet.
"I was recently contacted by the YSS to send my achievement certificates and other documents so I hope that I can get my past dues as it will help me to dedicate more time to further development of winter sports for the community."
Keshavan, who is now associated with the Luge Federation of India as High performance Director, said there are few things that need to be done immediately.
"Firstly, winter sports should be given priority status by the state government. Second, we need to apply to the central govt for a centre of excellence for winter sport. Third, we need to put in place a system to recognise individual winter sports associations.
"Finally, it would be a good idea for the HP government to set up a task force that can prepare recommendations for the development of winter sports in Himachal.
"The plan must also detail how the state can have a year-round calendar of sports-related tourism activities, and periodic big-ticket international events," he said.