At 3 pm local time (11.30 am IST) on Friday at the Alpensia Cross-Country Skiing Centre in Pyeongchang, Jagdish Singh will begin his first Winter Olympics campaign.
But two days before his race, he did not even have a racing suit and proper equipment.
A week before his race, he hadn’t even landed in South Korea.
Two weeks before his race, when he was supposed to depart for South Korea, he missed his flight from Delhi because of a bureaucratic scramble over who will accompany him to the Games.
Two months before his race, he had not even qualified for the Olympics.
It’s a wonder Jagdish Singh is even there in Pyeongchang and competing in the men’s 15km free cross-country skiing race.
Lack of training and equipment
Having been introduced to skiing in 2011 after joining India’s High-altitude Army Warfare School in Gulmarg, Singh qualified for the Winter Games only in December last year.
Even to qualify, he had to plead with the Winter Games Federation of India to send him abroad for training and competitions, before he was finally sent to Finland for the Scandinavian Cup where he secured qualification.
“If they had sent me abroad more for training, it would have been nice,” Singh told The Field. “They know that India does not have a good skiing track. The track in Gulmarg is ruined by civilians, who walk on it and are taken for sled rides. We can’t say anything to them and we have to practice there only. It’s of no use.”
The federation then jostled with the Army school, which had funded and trained Singh for the last seven years, over who will accompany him to Pyeongchang. This delayed his departure by a week and cost him some vital training and acclimatisation time.
Finally, the Indian Olympic Association stepped in and picked his coach and former Olympian Nadeem Iqbal to travel with him, and the two reached Pyeongchang on the evening of February 9. He began his training on the 10th, just six days before his first ever Olympic race.
“We have hardly got time to train,” said Singh, a day before his race. “The federation does not care about anyone. They are just bothered about travelling abroad. Because of that I got late coming here.”
As if all this was not enough, Singh did not even receive proper and sufficient equipment for his campaign. Most of the equipment and gear he has with him in Pyeongchang has been provided by the Army. The Winter Games Federation of India did not provide any and the Indian Olympic Association gave him a bare minimum.
“The IOA gave us a windcheater and a tracksuit, which is of no use in this weather,” said Iqbal, who represented India at the Sochi Olympics in 2014 in the same event, cross-country skiing. “The temperature here goes down till -24ºC. We use their windcheater and tracksuits as innerwear.”
In cross-country skiing, athletes have to glide across a 15km-long path on a snow-covered field in the shortest possible time. The track has uphill, level, and downhill fields. It is an event that requires each competitor to have at least 10 pairs of skis, if not more, including ones for training and competition.
“Equipment breaks easily, and skis lose their flexibility early,” said Iqbal. “After a week of training you can’t use the same pair of skis for competition. We brought four skis with us and bought one more over here, but it’s not enough. We will try all of them before the race, wax them and see which one works best.”
Paying out of own pocket
Singh bought his own equipment, including skis, shoes, a racing suit and a jacket, worth Rs 72,000 after reaching Pyeongchang, an amount he isn’t sure will be reimbursed. As a result, Singh’s racing suit and jacket does not even have the word “India” printed on it.
“All other athletes have jackets with their country’s name on it and they wear it proudly,” said Singh. “I also feel proud when I wear an India jacket in public – woh pehenke ek alag si feeling aati hai, alag sa josh aata hai. My suit only has the manufacturer’s logo, so no one knows we are from India unless they ask us.”
India’s only other representative at Pyeongchang 2018, Shiva Keshavan, was appalled after hearing of Singh’s ordeal. The 36-year-old, who participated in his sixth and final Olympic luge race last week, said that such things should not be acceptable in any serious contingent.
“Any self-respecting country shouldn’t leave its athletes in this way,” said Keshavan, who was a lot better off in Pyeongchang considering he had six sponsors and had received a Rs 20 lakh grant from the IOA, but had faced similar ordeals earlier in his career. “All these issues shouldn’t be there, period, much less in such a big competition. There is definitely something wrong that needs to be looked at.”
The Winter Games Federation of India’s Secretary General Roshan Lal Thakur told The Field that since the organisation did not have enough money to give Singh after being de-recognised by the Indian Olympic Association for not involving independent observers while conducting elections.
“We had sent Jagdish to Finland from where he qualified for the Olympics but we do not have enough funds because we have been de-recognised by IOA,” said Thakur. “Jagdish has been funded by the Army and the IOA.”
When The Field contacted IOA Secretary General Rajeev Mehta, he said that Singh had been provided funds and equipment by the association but refused to divulge further details. When told that Singh had said the equipment provided by the IOA was not sufficient, Mehta said, “We do not wish to comment on this.”
A medal is out of question for Singh on Friday but the 26-year-old promises to give his best. “I’ll give whatever I can, whatever my body allows me to. I want to make my country proud. I’ll have to do something.”
Corrections and clarifications: This story has been updated with the quotes of the Winter Games Federation of India’s Secretary General Roshan Lal Thakur and, later, the Indian Olympic Association’s Secretary General, Rajeev Mehta.