Dismayed at the apathy from existing support structures, six-time Winter Olympian Shiva Keshavan is working towards forming a non-profit body to fund Indian winter sport athletes. The initiative is at an advanced stage of set-up and is likely to be floated within the next few months, Shiva reveals.
Little over ten days ago, India had a lone representative at the Beijing Winter Olympics in alpine skier Arif Khan. Five years prior, Arif had turned to crowdfunding in a desperate attempt to fund his Games hopes. Support trickled in, but in the end it wasn't enough to cover his training and competition costs leading into the Winter Olympics.
Shiva, who retired after the 2017 Winter Games, wants the next lot of Indian athletes to have a relatively less distressing time. "The idea is to provide training and funding support, starting with a small bunch of teenage athletes, with the 2026 Winter Games in view," Shiva said.
Getting off the ground, only four athletes will be part of the program, with two sports - skiing and luge - forming the focus in its early days. The athletes will work under international coaches and train at facilities in Europe for three-to-five month stints interspersed with distance training in India. For this initiative, Shiva plans to work closely with federations, who would be allowed to use the same high-level training programs at cheaper rates for any additional athletes they might want to train. While the base funding for takeoff is available at this point, Shiva is now reaching out to tech start-up heads and those in adventure sport businesses for further support.
The CSR model of funding for elite and emerging Indian athletes has been around for a while in summer disciplines - with professionally-run bodies like GoSports, Olympic Gold Quest and JSW Sports at the forefront. While non-profit bodies existed in the ecosystem even previously, they largely worked in silos. Post the 2016 Games, there has been a coming together of sports federations and the Target Olympic Podium scheme (TOPS) to tend to athlete needs alongside CSR-motored non-profits. The latter fills the gaps in training, sports science, mental training among other aspects and for athletes they work as a safety mesh to fall back on, in addition to conventional structures. It's the sort of space Shiva ideally wants the not-for-profit he's helming to operate in the winter sport scenario.
None of the winter sport federations are presently recognized by the Sports Ministry which makes government funding a high hurdle. Uniform criteria for vastly different sports lies at the heart of the problem. According to Ministry criteria, for a national sports federation to be recognized, at least nine state federations have to be in existence. Primarily three regions in India - Jammu & Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand have the natural conditions for winter disciplines.
"We don't have nine winter sport-compatible states in our country," Shiva says, "It's unfair to apply summer sports criteria to winter disciplines." This, the former luger suggests, can be addressed by the Ministry setting up an expert panel who can draw up guidelines specific to winter sports which could in turn lead to government recognition of these bodies and open up funding. It will also, he believes, help ensure that federations are doing their job. "The Ministry asking federations to come up with long-term developmental plans on the basis of which they can release funds is a healthy way to incentivize planning and progress. We can't tell athletes that we'll support them after they bring medals."
In January this year, a little more than one month ahead of his Games appearance, Arif was approved a grant of 17.46 lakhs INR for a five-week training stint in Europe and purchase of equipment, under the Target Olympic Podium scheme. "All it took was a couple of phone calls from those in power and Arif had funds released. This shows it can be done, it just has to be a lot more structured," says Shiva,
"Unlike other countries, our journey at the Winter Games doesn't begin at the race. Just being able to make it there is an Olympic event in itself for us. Arif's participation is a reminder that winter sport athletes aren't one-offs. There are plenty of young skiers, lugers and snowboarders waiting for support. If we act now, some of them can surely make it to the starting gate of the next Games."