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Sochi Games Expose Indian Corruption And Redemption

Independent Olympic participant Shiva Keshavan makes a run during the men's luge training session ahead of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics at the Sanki Sliding Center on Wednesday in Sochi, Russia.
Al Bello
Getty Images
Independent Olympic participant Shiva Keshavan makes a run during the men's luge training session ahead of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics at the Sanki Sliding Center on Wednesday in Sochi, Russia.

It's one of the most dangerous sports at the Olympic Games. And when Indian slider Shiva Keshavan crashed from his sled during a training run at the luge track Friday, his miraculous recovery went viral.

Flying through icy curves feet first, Keshavan thundered down the frozen tunnel, the scraping blades or "steels" of his small sled sounding like a runaway train.

Luge athletes, who resume competition Sunday, can reach speeds of 85 miles per hour in a Zen-like balancing act: keeping the body stiff to maximize acceleration yet relaxed enough to absorb the intense gravitational forces on the slider during the run. Lugers were hitting speeds of up to 96 mph on the Whistler run at the Vancouver 2010 Olympics, before Nodar Kumaritashvili, a first-time Olympian from the Republic of Georgia, was killed in a horrific training crash before the opening ceremony.

For Keshavan, a five-time Indian Olympian, his training regimen is one of those improbable tales at the heart of Olympic dreams. In cricket-crazed India, there is nothing approximating a suitable luge run, or any facility favoring winter sports.

Instead, Keshavan relies on endurance training and the occasional death-defying roll down a windy, traffic-choked highway in his home state of Himachal Pradesh in the Himalayan Mountains. A promotional video shows him weaving in and out of cars and trucks, his sled on wheels. It all suggests the perils and creativity of being a Winter Olympian in a country where most people live in scorching conditions and consider the games alien.

Adding to the hurdles, Keshavan and two other Indian athletes are stateless at these games. Keshavan, cross-country skier Nadeem Iqbal, and Alpine slalom skier Himanshu Thakur cannot compete for India or use any Indian insignia. The three marched into Sochi's Fisht Olympic Stadium for the ceremonial parade of athletes Friday not under their tricolor national flag, but as "independent" participants competing under the Olympic banner.

Many Indians consider the awkward state of affairs "a disgrace" and blame their country's Olympic Association.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) suspended the Indian Olympic Association (IOA) in December 2012 for electing officials who were facing criminal corruption charges stemming from the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi. It's a violation of the Olympic code that India was made aware of but did little to rectify. The IOC also demanded that India's Sports Ministry stop interfering politically with the IOA, a charge that other governments, including Kuwait and Panama, have also faced.

Once India agreed to comply with the Olympic Charter, the athletes were allowed to attend the Winter Games. To rejoin the Olympic fold, the IOA will hold an election for a new, untainted leadership. However, it's not until Sunday, Feb. 9 — two days after the official start of the Sochi Games.

IOA official V.K. Malhotra told The Outdoor Journal that it was "sad" that the Indian contingent wouldn't be competing under the Indian flag. The 82-year-old president of the Archery Association of India added, "However, the Indian Winter Olympic athletes don't stand a chance of winning any medals either." Senior sportsmen have been quietly seething over the shabby treatment of the country's Olympic athletes.

The 32-year-old Keshavan told the same magazine that the remark was "humiliating." But it has apparently not dented his performance. After the first heat in the luge event Saturday, Keshavan increased his standing in the Olympic ranking from 38th to 35th. He says he does not plan on staying for the closing ceremony.

"What's the point of attending when you can't hold your country's flag?" he asked.

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Julie McCarthy
Julie McCarthy has spent most of career traveling the world for NPR. She's covered wars, prime ministers, presidents and paupers. But her favorite stories "are about the common man or woman doing uncommon things," she says.
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