What motivates India’s money-men to give generously to a relatively obscure sport, whose sole athlete is a Manali boy with a need for speed?

In Cool Runnings, (1993) the epic movie about the Jamaican bobsled team that made it to the 1988 Winter Olympics, Junior (one of the team members) sells his car so that they can embark on a journey, which will culminate with an Olympic gold, albeit a Winter Olympic gold.

Shiva Keshavan, India’s first luge athlete’s journey to Sochi, where along with more than 2,000 other competitors, he’ll be looking to win gold next week, was considerably less precarious. An Olympic veteran, Keshavan, who lives in Manali, will take part in his fifth games this year in the luge event. For the uninitiated, luge is a sport where athletes cover winding ice tracks little more than a kilometre long, at speeds of up to 150 km/hour. Even though he has to compete under the Olympic flag, since the Indian Olympic Association, seems to care little about the country being represented at the world stage, the Asian Games gold medallist has never been better prepared. As Namita Aggarwal, wife and manager of the Olympian, says, “Luge is an expensive sport, so the support we have received this time around has gone a great way in helping him continue his passion.”

So who is funding Keshavan and why are they putting money in a sport, which is yet to capture popular imagination in the country? The answer probably lies in a variety of factors but one underlying change for the better is that India is moving beyond cricket. “In our country it is no secret that most sports funding is directed towards cricket,” says Amitesh Rao, director, brand and media at MTS India, one of Keshavan’s biggest funders. MTS, who consider themselves a “challenger brand”, believe that Keshavan’s image fits well with the image their company wants to project. They have been supporting the athlete for the past three years. In January, they launched the #IndiaForShiva campaign on Twitter and set up a micro-site of the same name as well, meant as a one-stop-shop for all who want to donate or just follow Keshavan’s sporting developments. The mobile company has also run an online ad-campaign featuring the athlete, who has been their brand ambassador for the last two years.

While corporate endorsements are always useful, a more structured and steady source of support for Keshavan has come from the non-profit organisation, Olympic Gold Quest. OGQ, backed by a host of corporate partners, identifies athletes with the most potential in the country and supports them financially and in other areas. Athletes who have signed up with OGQ, apart from Keshavan, include MC Mary Kom, Saina Nehwal and Sushil Kumar, to name a few. Viren Rasquinha, former captain of the Indian Hockey Team and currently the CEO of OGQ says, “In luge, the top 25 athletes are separated by less than 0.8 seconds, even the tiniest fraction of a second can make or break your title chances. For Shiva to compete at this level he needs the best technical support and equipment.” While OGQ helps Keshavan with physicians for physiotherapy, it also raises funds through corporate honchos and crowdsourcing campaigns.

For Ashish Gupta, founder-trustee of Ashoka University, and a donor to OGQ, the sport itself is not as important as asserting national pride on the sporting stage. “I think it is important that India continues to do well in cricket. But at the same time it is also necessary that other athletes competing in other fields receive adequate support,” he says.

Dalal-street heavyweight Rakesh Jhunjhunwala of RARE Enterprises has had a long-standing association with OGQ. “We want to support our country’s attempts to win an Olympic gold and I think giving to OGQ is a great way to achieve this,” he says. “I think they have done an awesome job and since many of them have been professional athletes themselves, they know what is required,” he adds.

OGQ succeeded in collecting more than their target of ₹10 lakh, allowing Keshavan to buy a state-of-the-art sled. Interestingly, OGQ raised money even from smaller donors who gave anything between ₹100 to ₹25,000. Ashok Dewan, a retired naval officer, donated ₹6,000 for Keshavan’s cause. What inspired him to give it? He says, “Shiva seems to be constantly fighting against a regressive system, fighting for recognition and fighting to raise money so that he can luge.” He adds, “I thought it’ll be good to donate because through my small contribution, the athlete can get the extra edge that he needs. In India, unless you’re from a rich family it’s difficult to pursue sports and I feel its time that situation changed.”

Meanwhile for Keshavan who is currently training in France, it might be a case of “five’s a charm”. He says, “I will not be allowed to hold the Indian flag in the Olympic Games this time, and that saddens me. But in my heart and mind, I am competing for India, and for each and every person who supports me.”

(Sochi Winter Olympics begins on February 7, 2014.)

(This article was published on January 31, 2014)
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