Arrey bhai, it's tough to be an Indian Olympian

Imagine doing this on a shoe-string budget.
Olivier Morin

NEW DELHI, India — To outsiders, India’s approach to the Sochi 2014 games looks like an Olympian-scalekludge.

Just a week or so before departing, the Indian team didn’t know if it would have enough money to buy skis, or even flights to the Russian resort.

There has also been controversy over what flag they’d compete under. 

Since December 2012, their country has been banned from the games because the Indian Olympic Association had elected “tainted” officials. The association is holding fresh elections to be held on Feb. 9. So although they’ve had more than a year to address the ban, they chose to do so two days after the opening ceremonies.

Because of this, the nation’s three athletes — slalom skier Himanshu Thakur, cross country skier Nadeem Iqbal and veteran luger Shiva Keshavan — will compete under the Olympic flag rather than the Indian one.

Even the athletes’ visas were in jeopardy. Paperwork stuck in Moscow needed to be rushed via courier to Delhi only the day before they departed for Sochi.

Cause for panic?

Not at all.  

Everything came together at the last minute.

The Indian government stepped in with a modest grant of $16,700 to cover airfares and skis.

Online donations worth $6,000 have been pledged from the US via online currency Dogecoin, a "crypto-currency" similar to Bitcoin.

The Winter Games Federation of India has arranged for skis, boots, poles and suits to be shipped directlyto Sochi.

And the visas arrived in time.

After all the suspense, India’s embattled athletes won’t be fazed by Sochi’s “yellow face water” and controversial commodes.

In fact, just-in-time improvisation is integral to the Indian way of life. There’s even a word for it — jugaad.

India’s last minute push for Sochi is “very jugaad,” says Jaideep Prahbu, a professor of business and enterprise at Cambridge University. “They are responding to harsh circumstances by improvising a good-enough solution with limited resources. It’s a good enough solution, not the best solution.”

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The likes of China, Great Britain and the US may invest millions of dollars in tightly-planned, decade-long programs that target Olympic medals.

India actually prefers jugaad.

There is more to jugaad than what foreigners might consider to be poor foresight.

You see, Indians hold considerable pride in the philosophy that every problem has a frugal, impromptu solution.

A well-known commercialized example is the MittiCool fridge, which needs no electricity. It is based on clay water pots, which are popular in Gujarat. The water evaporates through the clay pores, producing the cooling effect. The inventor, Manshuk Prajabati, built a pot with a compartment beneath the water which can keep vegetables fresh for up to five days.

Other examples include: heating a saucepan on a clothes iron; mixing drinks in a washing machine; cooling soft drinks in front of an air conditioner; and improvising a truck by cobbling together a pushcart and a water pump engine.

Professor Prabhu, the author of Jugaad Innovation, said “There is a sense in India that the whole system is so complex and unpredictable that there’s no point in planning ahead because things are out of control.”

Almost everything about winter sports in India depends on such shoe-string ingenuity, even though there’s plenty of world-class winter here. The Himalayan mountains at the country’s northern edge are home to hundreds of villages where children delight in the winter snow.

A $600 set of skis is beyond the means of most Indians. The country’s average salary in 2013 was 68,747 rupees or about $1,100 a year.

So homemade skis are the only option for mountain children. They tend to be made from carved wood, with hacksaw blades stuck on the sides to provide edges. Ski boots are galoshes tied to the ski with twine.

“They have to walk up the mountain so it means they lose a lot of energy up the hill,” said Roshan Lal Thakur, the secretary of the Winter Games Federation of India. “We walk for two hours for 10 minutes of sliding down. But if you see all the talents that are in the mountains, all the kids who have started skiing very young, then you know that much more is possible if we had the facilities.”

India has about 700 competitive skiers, Thakur said, out of up to 50,000 who have learned the basic techniques. That’s not many considering the population of 1.2 billion.

There are three resorts in north India, which lack basic equipment such as machines to groom the slopes.

And if facilities are scarce for skiers, they are non-existent for luger Shiva Keshavan.

He learned to luge at a camp near his school in Manali, Himachal Pradesh. The sport usually requires an ice track, but his first taste of the sport was on a street luge: a sled with wheels.

The 32-year-old is India’s best known winter athlete, having competed in four Olympics so far, and he has built up a network of sponsors that enables him to travel to qualification competitions.

But even he uses jugaad to compete with the Swiss, Italian, British and American lugers who are backed by Formula One racing teams like McLaren and Ferrari, and major corporations such as Dow Chemicals.

The top lugers spend time in a wind tunnel to check their body positions so they produce the least possible drag when sliding down the track at 90 mph.

“Shiva has had no such access to wind tunnel testing,” his wife and manager Namita told GlobalPost. “His equipment lacks mainly in technology which other teams have. It seems that India would have the technology needed, it is just about using it now.”

Keshavan’s approach has been to assemble a volunteer research team, headed by his brother-in-law Nalin Agarwal, to modify an off-the-shelf sled.

“Some of the things Shiva Keshawan has been doing seem to be jugaad,” Professor Prabhu said. “He doesn’t have access to the ideal solution. He doesn’t have McLaren to work with or Mercedes Benz. It’s good enough to get him to the Olympics, but it’s probably not going to break records.”