Sochi was bittersweet for the Indian athletes—from constant reminders of the apathy back home to a sense of achievement on being part of a very special celebration
By Namita Agarwal
“Namita, can you take the video from the start house today, on the screen, so we can get the full run?” Miro Zayonc, head coach of the USA luge team, said to me on the day it all began.A week into the Sochi training week, I had come to know the drill well. We had been training with the USA Team the entire season, and one of my jobs was to film athletes from certain curves. So when Zayonc asked me to film from the start house instead of a curve along the ice-cold track, I was silently relieved. Little did I know things were about to change the next minute. “Next on the start, Shiva Keshavan!” announced the commentator while I turned on the camera, crossed my fingers and muttered the good God’s name.
For Keshavan, this was the final training run before the Olympic race the next day. He had gone back to his old sled after testing a new sled the whole season, which did not work as promised. His training runs had actually been going well though we were aiming for more speed, and I was confident he would pull this one off. And then, he crashed.
On his belly, sliding at 78mph, holding tight on to his sled. I held the camera steady and I watched him wait for the right moment, jerk the sled towards himself and fling himself back on, while still in motion. My heart had reached my mouth by then. It takes about 30 minutes from the track to the Mountain Olympic Village with its high security.
Once back in the residence, we took stock of what just happened. Keshavan admitted that he might have overdone ‘it’. I understood immediately what he meant. There are two techniques to make a sled go faster—lowering the angle of the steel runners, or taking the edge off the blades by making them rounder. Both these techniques may guarantee higher speeds, but definitely compromise on safety and control. Over the past week, Keshavan had been doing just that.
Leaving him in the sled room to make the sled ‘safer’, I went to take a quick look at my emails. There were just over a hundred messages in my inbox within the last half hour. NBC had picked up the video and put it online, there were journalists from New York to Borneo wanting to interview Keshavan. Also present were fan mails, with requests for autographs on Keshavan’s crash photo. I was stunned. “Keshavan!” I went screaming into the sled room, to a very worried athlete. “It’s gone viral!” He paid no heed and continued working on his sled, with a frown sitting firmly on his forehead. That was my cue to get to work I figured, passing him the calipers to measure the angle of the steel runners again.
A VILLAGE LIFE
The media, prior to the Games, was not very forgiving of Sochi—perhaps for valid reasons. That, and the small fact of the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) being suspended for reasons of ethics and corruption, meant we were not the most excited “Olympic Team” landing in Sochi. We reached a week before the race to a city which seemed ready to take on the Games. There were multi-coloured lights everywhere, neon signs, enthusiastic volunteers helping you before you could even ask. The luggage was collected, loaded on buses, and we were packed off to the Mountain Village in Krasnaya Polyana—swift, clean and flawless. We could not complain, even if we wanted to. What we did notice was how the landscape had been ruthlessly carved in to accommodate the dreams of one man from Russia. These were his Games, there is not denying that. If an ultra high-speed train was to be built along the only river, so be it. If the mountains had to be shaved barren to make the venues, it would be done. What we saw was concrete, where once stood solid mountains, breathtaking canyons and a beautiful valley, only a year ago.
As we pulled into the Village that seemed to be on the very top of a Caucasian mountain, soaring buildings faced us each with a flag of the country whose athletes it housed. A grim reality dawned on us again. We had no flag, and we were on our own. In the absence of a Chef de Mission, an IOC official waited to sign us into our rooms. Basic rooms, no hot water for a day, but what a view. The ski slope flowed straight to the point below our window, the gondolas were being operated all night with people ‘shredding the slopes’ (snowboard jargon, that I now know) till late into the night and very early into the morning—one could really sense that something big was going to happen. And we were going to be a part of it. It took about 24 more hours for the Village to set itself up to its guests—facilities like transport, hot water and food were suddenly functioning smoothly. The dining hall was open 24 hours and was a 10-minute walk from our Residence. It looked like a large warehouse from the outside, but gets full brownie points for trying to accommodate the tastes and preferences of about 2,600 athletes and their support teams. Asian, Russian, Mediterranean, Middle-Eastern, all-day breakfast and a McDonald’s for your taking. Free. Although not a huge fan of the fast food chain, I will admit that by the end of it, I enjoyed the change in taste it offered! In retrospect, what was amazing was that we were all part of an extra large family, almost a community.
There were no celebrities or stars once you were inside the Village. You could be dining with a multiple Olympic medallist and not know he/she had 1.5 million followers on social media. There was focus, camaraderie, team-work and, most of all, an overwhelming feeling of the Olympic spirit. For the most part, we had ‘no country’, we did not have India’s badges to exchange nor did we have a uniform that explained who, where or what we were representing. We had to answer awkward questions about the corruption in India only 40 times a day, so much so that it would get depressing. And yet, it was the Olympic spirit that brought out compassion and empathy in everyone. When you experience this and see all the flags unfurled together, you are reminded that there are but a few things left in the world left that make nations and people come together—sport tops that list.
REPRESENTING IN SPIRIT
There were a million reasons that brought us down. But there were also millions of reasons that uplifted us. And those millions were the Indians from all around the world. It was each message of support from them that gave a reason for Keshavan to even consider going for the opening ceremony of the biggest Winter Olympic Games ever hosted. He told me just outside the Bolshoy Stadium, “If I can’t represent my country, at least I can represent my countrymen.” Trying to keep everyone’s spirits up, I named the people who were landing from India, Italy, UK, Switzerland, Canada and Dubai that day. The Shiva Fan Club consists of about 40 people who religiously follow him to every Games he has ever participated in since Torino 2006. On the list were our families, friends, and fans, some of whom we had never met. We had taken special permission for them to fly the Indian flag, organised fan uniforms and game-day noisemakers that are always sponsored by Mec3 (a Gelato company), and we basically counted on the Club to make a serious amount of public display of affection for Keshavan. They did just that.
Meanwhile, I was doing all the administrative work that would have been the work of the Chef de Mission. Organising the availability of basic facilities like a sled room, opening ceremony procedures, competition entry formalities, media co-ordination (this last bit was immense), rule compliances were just at the tip of the iceberg. Being an Olympic team is a big deal and, potentially, an organisational nightmare. National Olympic Committees (NOCs) of each country have access to the basic facilities and are additionally given special privileges during the Games—a car (Audi/ Volkswagen) for the athletes, with a driver and dedicated volunteers who will go all the way to Moscow to get you your favourite packet of chips if asked, free access to most Olympic events, a lounge room, an office, workshops, airport services, absolutely anything one could need. We, of course, had none of these, even after India came back into the Olympic fold. The main roadblock we faced was in communication—any sort of information flows downward from the IOC to the NOC (National Olympic Committee) and the Chef de Mission. In the absence of both, we were left in a limbo. Our sole point of contact was a group of officials from the IOC, and thankfully, they were forthcoming and ready to help.
One of the biggest problems we faced came with the ‘India for Shiva’ campaign launched in early 2013, that allowed people to share a video of Keshavan on social media, and in return, get their names on his Olympic suit. The thing with the Olympic Games is that there are air-tight rules for advertising and branding in all Olympic and surrounding venues. Your own name cannot be displayed on your helmet; even trademarks of your headphones must be covered with black tape unless it is an official sponsor of the Games, like Samsung. There we were, on the first day of training, and Keshavan putting on the ‘India for Shiva’ training suit with the names of thousands of people who supported him during the MTS (India) campaign. Everywhere, athletes and their coaches were sticking duct tapes of various colours to hide any sort of minuscule branding, athlete names, writings in foreign languages, even names of their own countries that exceeded the permitted size. Due to India’s situation at the Olympics, there was no information relayed to us about these specifications.
There was a new and specific rule against the printing or using of any name(s), after an episode where an athlete changed his entire name legally to that of an underwear brand, allowing the company free publicity during the Games! Keshavan’s suit had a few thousand names. And, of course, it was the only suit we had. This could have been the last straw, in more ways than one. Each suit is custom made, the material is specialised, and it could have taken anywhere from a week to 10 days to source another. The race was in two days. As a team, we decided it was not something we would be stripped of. We put on brave faces and went to reason this one out. There was no way they were going to take the one symbolic support we had away from us. The training got over in two hours, amidst several questions being asked and eyebrows being raised. After getting back straight to the Village, we marched into the IOC office with the race suit and our own ceremonial dress, something all the Indian athletes had organised on their own. We reasoned with the officials that Keshavan’s name was not on it, they were not names of sponsors but supporters linked together and wasn’t meant for advertising. On the TV screen too, the broadcast did not reveal any particular names, and we really did not have an alternative suit. If the IOC would disallow it, we asked them to organise another one before the race, but it needed to be of the same high-performance material, or we would not accept it. They would get back to us.
A day later they told us that the suit did not comply with the rules. It was a blow to the gut. However, since it was not clearly visible on TV, they would allow it this one time, as long as Keshavan wore a jacket over it when he went to talk to the media after his races. It was a moment of pure joy. To be able to carry the support that would propel us forward, it was seemingly a small victory, but it was huge for us.
THE POLITICS OF SPORT
The crash on Feb. 7 had consequences on our performance during the race. More than that, training without a coach had more severe consequences, as evidenced by the results. The Games weren’t quite over for us, though. We had already analysed every detail that had gone wrong and had formulated what needs to be done for Korea 2018, to make it right. Keshavan had been invited to address the World Olympians Association once the IOA elections had concluded and India was brought back into the Olympic fold.
With a new board of administrators, heading our association back home, we, as part of the sports fraternity, hope for a change in outlook towards our athletes. The incidents and difficulties we faced in the build-up and during the Games were larger indications of the failures that exist in the system. This is a system that is funded by the International Olympic Committee and the different sports federations. It receives economic benefit from private companies and assistance from the government. Yet—and this is the part that baffles all—it is unable to provide basic coaching needs and infrastructure to its athletes. For a country of over a billion, we produced only three athletes, who battled their own mountains to get to Sochi. Smaller and younger countries such as Bosnia, Andorra and Azerbaijan had more athletes than ours. It was humiliating to be part of an association that had fully compromised its position in the eyes of billions of watchers.
Everyone at the Games was informed about the corrupt and unethical practice of a ‘cosy club’ in charge of the Olympic Association in India. After our reinitiation, everyone wanted to know how it felt to be back. It was historical—the first time any country had been readmitted during the Games! Honestly, it was too sudden. After struggling and pushing against a wall for so long, suddenly we were being told that everything was going to be fine. It gave birth to more questions than answers. Keshavan’s words from earlier flashed in my mind. “Sports ultimately is just an expression of a country. And right now, the fact that our country is not represented because of corruption, says a lot,” he had said. The flag-hoisting would take place in a few days. Yes, of course, we were happy. But would there be real change? Would the flag really usher in a better image for the country and concern for its people? We knew the answer the day the flag was hoisted. The newly-appointed president of the IOA came all the way to Sochi and was received by the IOC officials in the International Plaza—the avenue in the Village where every country has its flag. He simply shook hands with the athletes and support staff and appointed the secretary general of the Winter Games Federation of India to be the flagbearer. At this point, the IOC officials intervened, telling him it was mandatory that only athletes carry the flag, and not officials. Perhaps the head of the Indian Olympic Movement should have known this basic fact? The ceremony itself was emotional and we tried not to let the elephant in the room bother any of us. And then the president was gone.
Without a word of encouragement, or the customary promise of better facilities and more commitment to the athletes. It was so clear, that we were not even surprised.
Hope is a word that is reflected in the eyes of every athlete you meet. A hope to win. A hope to outperform oneself. A hope for a better tomorrow. I witnessed that the Olympics gave everyone a dream and a space for those dreams to come true, in their own way. Nadeem Iqbal calling Keshavan ‘bhai’ and treating him like one, after just a day of meeting him; Keshavan looking out for the youngest in our team, Himanshu Thakur; officials from the Pakistani delegation expressing their concern and wanting to be a part of our flag hoisting ceremony; Asians getting together and jokingly committing to taking over the medal count in Korea 2018—this was the microcosm of it all. Being together with the world.
This feeling was magnified when we took the gondola to the highest peak in the Caucasian Mountains, and saw how the mountains expanded below us, still untouched, blanketed in soft white snow, the Black Sea on the horizon. What we earlier saw as the destruction of nature by man seemed like a speck. Truthfully, it made Russia’s beauty accessible to all of us. It gave us perspective—the world is much larger than we know it to be and we are so tiny with our little problems. Our constant preoccupation for a year, about bridging that one-second gap in Luge to reach the podium, seemed like a tiny story.
You would see the bigger picture when the Russian soldiers, who didn’t bat an eyelid to acknowledge your presence just a year ago, would now smile at you and wish you a good morning! The volunteers, when told where you came from, would express with much yearning that they wanted to see India before they die. Americans leaving messages for Russia saying, “Sochi, we will miss you. Stay classy!” It was these small things that showed how we make up our worlds with our own assumptions, and how fickle those assumptions must be. What remains with us is hope—to go faster, higher, stronger. And together. It is really the only way.
The author is the manager and wife of Shiva Keshavan