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 can’t carry the Indian flag or wear their country’s insignia, the IOC has said. Their national anthem will not be played during medal ceremonies.
The suspension puts India in a league with other nations penalized by the IOC over the years, such as the losing countries in the two world wars, apartheid-era South Africa and the former Yugoslavia during the war in Bosnia.
The Times of India called the Opening Ceremonies, which will be watched by billions around the world, 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.”
Not going to win, anyway
Indian’s sports governing bodies have been dogged by allegations of mismanagement and corruption in recent years. After the IOC suspended the Indian Olympic Association in December 2012, the association defied the committee and chose Lalit Bhanot as its secretary general.
Bhanot, who has since stepped aside, had spent more than 10 months in jail on charges of corruption stemming from India’s hosting of the Commonwealth Games in 2010. That event was expected to showcase India as an emerging power but ended up tainted by graft and scandal, with athletes complaining about filthy rooms and the collapse of a pedestrian bridge.
Last month, the association agreed to hold fresh elections to address the IOC’s concerns, but it scheduled them for Feb. 9 — two days after the Games open.
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.
Short of travel money
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.”
India’s sports ministry agreed to help the athletes defray the costs of competing at Sochi. Keshavan received sufficient funds, but it has been unclear whether the other two competitors can afford to make the trip. Roshan Lal Thakur, secretary general of the Winter Games Federation of India, said he has finally received three-quarters of the$22,000 needed to send the alpine skier Himanshu Thakur and cross-country skier Nadeem Iqbal and their coaches to the Games. Still, he doesn’t know where he will get the rest.
“Maybe I have to borrow from friends,” he said. “Some miracle will happen, no?”
Suhasini Raj contributed to this report.