India is Failing to Realize its Massive Potential to Build Winter Games & Host the Winter Olympics

Keeping in mind the fact that India is home to the gorgeous Himalayas, the beautiful and picturesque valleys of Kashmir, and more hill-stations than one can keep track of, it’s surprising and even alarming to note that it has never really taken its potential to develop winter sports seriously. In fact, I’d go a step further and ask a question that should have been asked a while ago – why has India never thought about winter sports and hosting the Winter Olympics? If a small country like South Korea, that’s not necessarily known for its mountain ranges or snow-filled valleys can host the Winter Olympics, why should India stay far behind?

Let’s begin with talking about the major sports that make up the winter games – cross country skiing, luge, ski jumping, speed skating, figure skating, ice hockey and snowboarding. India receives a good amount of snowfall every year in states like Himachal Pradesh, Jammu & Kashmir, Uttarakhand, Sikkim, Arunachal Pradesh. Each of these states have numerous locations where there is fresh powdery snow every year that is most conducive to develop winter sports. We do have a smattering of activities in the name of winter games. The larger question – is there a focused approach to developing this segment of sports, in order to make India a favoured destination in Asia for winter adventure holidays?

The answer is a big NO.

The government has written a policy of sorts for developing adventure sports in India. The implementation of that policy with the requisite safety & security benchmarks leaves a lot to be desired.

A little story of two Indian Olympians will tell you why we are lagging behind in winter sports and Winter Olympics.

Winter Olympics 2018 ends on 25th February. In a population of 1.3 billion Indians, India has been able to send just TWO participants to Pyeongchang, South Korea. This is not because we do not have enough interested & enthusiastic sportspersons. This is because

  • We DO NOT have adequate qualitative infrastructure to train our budding champions
  • So called LACK of funds at every step
  • NO VISION of building a legacy of sports culture
  • Absolutely NO WILL POWER in the bureaucratic corridors of the Ministry of Sports & Youth Affairs

On 15th February 2018, Jagadish Singh began his first Winter Olympics campaign in Cross Country Skiing.

  • Two days before his race, he did not even have a racing suit and proper equipment.
  • A week before his race, he hadn’t even landed in South Korea.
  • Two weeks before his race, when he was supposed to depart for South Korea, he missed his flight from Delhi because of a bureaucratic scramble over who will accompany him to the Games.
  • Two months before his race, he had not even qualified for the Olympics.

For the 26 year old, going for his first Winter Olympics has been a harrowing experience. Interviews with the young skier clearly indicate that the “Winter Games Federation just doesn’t care”, “They are more bothered about who will travel abroad with the athlete.”

In cross-country skiing, athletes have to glide across a 15km-long path on a snow-covered field in the shortest possible time. The track has uphill, level, and downhill fields. It is an event that requires each competitor to have at least 10 pairs of skis, if not more, including ones for training and competition. Jagadish has had to do with 4 pairs that Indian Olympics Association sanctioned him. He had to buy another pair in Pyeongchang, which still may not be adequate. He has had to buy his own equipment, including skis, shoes, a racing suit and a jacket, worth Rs 72,000 after reaching Pyeongchang, an amount he isn’t sure will be reimbursed. As a result, Jagadish Singh’s racing suit and jacket does not even have the word “India” printed on it.

The story of our seasoned Winter Olympian, Shiva Keshavan is tad better this year, because he was able to garner six sponsorships and Rs 20 lakhs from the Indian Olympics Association. He, however, achieved this after huge struggle and fight with our sports bodies. For two decades, Keshavan has hurtled himself down an icy concrete chute, going 130kmph without brakes and pulling more Gs through the corners than an astronaut during a rocket launch. And that’s the easy part. Making his way back to the starting line each time has been an Olympic challenge.

In 1997, a team, led by Austrian world champion Gunther Lemmerer, set up a scouting camp in Panchkula and discovered a talented young skier from Manali who had little trouble rolling down the roads on a sled with wheels. He was taken to Austria and a year later, Shiva Keshavan, 16, became the youngest Olympian in luge at the Nagano Winter Games. Bureaucratic red tapism and an apathetic government approach dogged him from then onwards. Starting from a Sports Ministry that had not done his paperwork to hitchhiking to the Games Village, not having $10 to pay for crossing the border into Canada, riding downhill in Sochi Winter Olympics with names of 50,000 donors etched on his suit because he did get a uniform from the masters sitting in the Ministry & IOA, it is a wonder that Keshavan persisted and pursued his passion.

With six Olympics, nine Asian Championship medals (four gold), and being President of the Olympians’ Association of India, under his belt, there is no dearth of opportunities in the international arena for ace lugers like Keshavan. What will be a disaster is to lose all that experience and expertise to countries that are willing to work with him and compensate him handsomely for it.

There has been a lot of debate in India about developing winter sports and support for Winter Olympics.  When you see how even Olympic sports have been obscure in India, of course Winter Olympics is in an even worse position. The four hurdles mentioned above must be tackled immediately if we are to go ahead in the future.

Our only hope right now is that we have a Minister of Sports & Youth Affairs who himself has been an Olympian and a medal winner for India. He should understand the plight of the Indian athlete and sportspersons and find solutions on a war footing. Besides finding solutions, ensure implementation quickly and effectively.

A collaborative approach between the Ministry of Sports and Ministry of Tourism can do wonders to build this segment in our country. There’s no other country in the world which has the natural resources for winter sports like India. There’s 3000 kms of Himalayan mountains. Experts from all over the world dream of coming to India to practice. It is high time we work on infrastructure so that our next generation athletes can take on the world. Look how removed Himachal, Kashmir, Uttarakhand and North East are from your Delhis, Bombays & Bangalores.

The big question I pose to both, government and corporates is – are we willing to use winter sports, a multi-million dollar industry, as a means of development?

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