No flag for India's athletes at Winter Games

India's athletes lost all hope Wednesday of competing under the national flag at the Winter Olympics after the country's suspended Olympic association said it would hold elections two days after the Games open in Sochi.

The Indian Olympic Association (IOA) will hold a poll to elect new leaders on February 9, a senior source told AFP, meaning luge medal hope Shiva Keshavan and three other competitors will be classed as independents, not as Indians.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) froze India's membership in December 2012 after the national association in New Delhi elected a number of tainted officials to key posts.

The IOA last month bowed to pressure and agreed to keep tainted officials out of the fresh elections, but rejected a request from India's sports ministry to hold the new contest before the start of the Games.

A furious Keshavan, preparing abroad for his fifth Winter Olympics that open on February 7, told the Mail Today newspaper on Wednesday that not being able to compete under the national flag was "shameful and pathetic".

"It is a sad and embarrassing situation that Indian sport has been put in," the 32-year-old said. "People around the world know about the failure of our systems and about corruption and bad governance in sports.

"The essence of the Olympic Games is to ‘represent’ and I feel it is shameful and pathetic for all of us Indians that athletes may not walk under the Indian flag."

IOC president Thomas Bach explained on December 10 that if elections were not held before February 7, Indian qualifiers for Sochi would be officially classified "as independent athletes under the Olympic flag".

A source in the Indian association told AFP Wednesday: "A notification to hold the elections on Feb 9 has been issued by senior IOA official S. Reghunathan, who has chaired the last few meetings."

The officials in the row include IOA secretary-general Lalit Bhanot who is out on bail facing corruption charges linked to the chaotic 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi.

The IOA source said holding the elections before the Games would have "created complications".

"The decision to have elections on February 9 was taken at a special general body meeting last month," he said. "We would have had to call another general body meeting to change the dates."

Besides Keshavan, who recently won a silver medal at the Luge Asia Cup in Japan, there are three skiers Hira Lal, Himanshu Thakur and Nadeem Iqbal in the Indian squad for the Sochi Games.

"How does an athlete, after putting in years of hard work in training for the Olympics, motivate himself after he is denied an opportunity to represent his own country?" Keshavan said in the interview.

"I remind myself that I am a sportsperson and have to stay focused. In my heart and mind, I will be competing for India and representing our country," said Keshavan.

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