India's Olympic athletes will be at Sochi, but not their country

The World

This isn't one of those heartwarming stories about athletes from a small tropical country who have the gumption to take on a winter sport and end up at the Olympics.

No, this is a story of three athletes from a very large country with a fast-growing GNP who take on a winter sport, train hard, borrow from friends, and end up qualifying for the Olympics — only to have their government make a bureaucratic hash of their efforts.

It was just Thursday when luger Shiva Keshavan, alpine competitor Himanshu Thakur and cross-country skier Nadeem Iqbal learned they would even get to go to Sochi.

India's sports ministry came through with last-minute funding, but it only covers travel, room and board. A separate request to cover the cost of equipment for two of the athletes is still pending. 

"They're very disappointed," says freelance reporter Rhitu Chatterjee. But it gets worse. The three athletes, if they make it to Sochi, face another limitation: They won't be able to compete for India.

"Imagine training all this while, putting in all this hard work, a lot of them raising their own money from their friends and family and now they can’t represent their country," says Chatterjee. "They can’t carry the Indian flag. It’s pretty disheartening."

The International Olympic committee disqualified the Indian Olympic Association from participating in the Olympics because two of its top officials had corruption charges filed against them in 2013.

"Basically, what the International Olympic Committee said was that India could participate if, by February, they held fresh elections and elected corruption-free people to the top," says Chatterrjee.

But the Indian Olympic Association missed the deadline.

The Indian athletes can take part in the opening and closing ceremonies, but Chatterjee says it won't be the same. "They will be able to march, just not carry the Indian flag," she says. "They'll carry the Olympic flag, instead. And should they win, the Indian anthem cannot play."

Winning a medal is a long shot for these athletes, but they are no slouches. Sochi will be Shiva Keshavan's fifth Winter Olympics. In fact, Keshavan was the first Indian to qualify for the Winter Olympics back in the 1990s.

"Shiva Keshavan complains that India's press is obsessed with cricket and wishes they'd take more interest in winter sports, but it's a hard sell," says Chatterjee. 

India is mostly a very hot country and there's not much winter sports infrastructure. There are few sports facilities, so Keshavan practices on a makeshift luge with wheels. And the training course? Keshavan races down a mountain highway which forces him to dodge large trucks, pedestrians and animals (watch the video).

Sign up for our daily newsletter

Sign up for The Top of the World, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.