NAGANO, Japan — His work here is done, his competition long since over, but he stays in the Olympic Village, day after day, sliding his breakfast tray through the cafeteria line. He cannot go home yet. If he did, there’d be no one to carry his flag in the closing ceremonies. Never mind that his country is the second-largest in the world. Never mind that it has three times the population of the United States.
He is the only one here.
You’ve heard of one in a million?
Try one in 900 million.
“Did they at least give you a uniform?” I ask 16-year-old Shiva Keshavan, who represents the entire Olympic team of India.
“We had something for the opening ceremonies,” he says, “but I wouldn’t call it a uniform. It was a jacket and pants.”
“No, it was blue and red. I don’t know why they picked these colors. In India’s flag there is no blue or red. I think it was a rush job.”
A rush job?
“Also, they sent these black plastic shoes, but they didn’t ask what size. They were very tight. My competition was the next day, and the whole night, my feet were hurting.”
To hear Shiva talk, you’d think he was competing for the tiniest of island nations, not a country of more than a million square miles and 1,600 different languages.
But despite India’s enormity, it treats the Winter Olympics like a village spelling bee. Shiva, who competes in luge, receives no funds from his government. No national training. No equipment. He has to borrow a sled.
They didn’t even show his event on Indian TV.
“I keep calling home, telling my friends to please tape the Olympics, but they say they are not showing the Olympics anywhere.”
Nine hundred million potential viewers.
Higher you climb, farther you go
I first became aware of India’s curious attitude toward the Winter Games when I interviewed two of its skiers in 1992. That year, they were India’s only representatives. I remember them saying their favorite part of the Olympics was the ski lift, since, in their country, there was no such thing. They had to walk up the mountain in order to ski down.
“I know those guys!” Shiva says, when I mention this to him. “Where I live is near where they live. They told you the truth. When we ski, we have to walk up. Sometimes you only get one run a day.”
“How long a run?” I ask.
“It depends on how high you climb,” he says.
Shiva lives in a small village in the Himalayan mountains, a resort-like place known for its hot springs and snow-capped peaks. His mother and father run an Italian restaurant. No, that is not a typo. An Italian restaurant in India.
“My mother is Italian,” Shiva explains. “She’s the cook.”
Shiva and his younger brother share a room above the restaurant, as do his parents. They all share one bathroom. In other words, we are not talking Aspen here.
But we are talking Olympic spirit. Shiva left his home to try luge after an international recruitment came to his region and put him on a wheeled sled that rolled down the streets. Shiva showed potential. He was invited to Europe for a two-week training course.
Of course, to get to Europe, all he had to do was raise the money for a ticket from New Delhi — and then drive to the airport.
From where he lives, that takes two days.
Two days to the airport?
“You could take a train,” he says. “There is one that begins at the bottom of the mountains. That’s only a 10-hour drive from my home.”
So much for changing your flight at the last minute.
He proved something to all of us
Isn’t it funny? In America, we are bombarded with Olympic stories. We get “Up Close and Personal” with every medal contender. We’ll see the winners in commercials and ice shows. And we take this as normal. We figure everyone with an Olympic dream is worth hearing and profiling.
Imagine, then, how Shiva Keshavan feels. He is the only one of his nation’s 900 million people to experience these Games, and there is no one here from India to even record his presence. When he returns home next week, he will have seen something that no one for thousands and thousands of miles will have seen.
“Don’t you want to run and tell everyone?” I ask him.
“No,” he says, “I don’t want them to think I’m acting better than them.”
For the record — and maybe someone in New Delhi will pick this up — Shiva, with less than four months of actual luge training under his belt, finished the singles competition a respectable 28th, ahead of every Asian competitor except one Japanese slider. His father, who could afford to come here only by staying in the Olympic Village as a coach, was with Shiva in the start hut.
“He said to me, ‘Don’t feel like you have to prove anything,’ ” Shiva recalls.
“But I felt like I did. I felt like I was representing my whole country, and it would not be nice to crash.”
He did not crash. He finished all four runs. And when he was done, he says a flushed feeling came over him, “as if all the work had come to fruit.”
Of course, your fruit depends on your tree. Sometimes you get rich. Sometimes you get TV cameras. And sometimes, all you get is a jacket with the wrong colors and a pair of shoes that don’t fit. But the Olympics are still the Olympics. So this weekend, one more time, Shiva will wear those bad clothes for a good reason.
“No one will carry the flag if not me. When I did it in the opening ceremonies, I felt so proud I felt like crying. I said to myself, ‘This, I will remember all my life.’ “
Now all they have to do back home is ask him about it.
To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581.