India’s only Alpine skier Arif Khan ready for date with destiny in Beijing

FILE PHOTO: Alpine Skiing – FIS Alpine World Ski Championships – Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy – February 19, 2021 India’s Arif Mohd Khan in action during his first run in the men’s giant slalom REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger

When India’s Arif Khan stepped into the Beijing National Stadium for the opening ceremony at the Winter Olympics (Feb. 3, 2022) it marked the culmination of a journey over a decade in the making.

Khan, who has qualified in slalom and giant slalom, is India’s sole representative at the Games and his path to the Olympics from the snowy slopes of conflict-ridden Kashmir was far from straightforward.

“It’s going to be a big responsibility, being one in a billion and carrying the flag,” the 31-year-old Khan told Reuters in an interview. “That will be an inspirational moment,” he told Reuters last month (Jan. 22, 2022).

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Khan was introduced to skiing at the age of four by his father and turned professional 14 years ago at 18. He has represented India in 127 international events, competing mainly in Europe on a shoestring budget.

FILE PHOTO: Alpine Skiing – FIS Alpine World Ski Championships – Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy – February 19, 2021 India’s Arif Mohd Khan reacts after his first run in the men’s giant slalom REUTERS/Leonhard Foeger/File Photo

“(In India) this sport is not that popular,” he said. You don’t get financially supported. That’s the biggest challenge.

“If you’re training for world-level events … you require at least 110,000 euros ($124,740) a season. If you’re training just for the Olympics, you require about 75,000 euros.

“That’s the budget. If you don’t have this budget, you’re not going to reach anywhere.”

Those figures represent a significant hurdle for an athlete from a country where the minimum daily wage is about 176 Indian rupees ($2.37).

Khan’s career has been funded mainly by his family. His father has operated a tour company and ski equipment shop in Gulmarg, Kashmir since the 1980s.

“Whatever we used to earn, we (set aside) part of it for my training,” Khan added. “Our major income depends on tourism.

“If there’s a good year of tourism, it can help me to train and travel for races for three to four months.”

KASHMIR CONFLICT

But life in Kashmir is unpredictable.

Khan’s Himalayan home is at the centre of a long-running conflict between India and neighbouring Pakistan, with curfews, lockdowns and other restrictions commonplace even before COVID-19 complicated things further.

In the build-up to the 2018 Games, unrest in Kashmir led to tourism drying up, forcing Khan to turn to crowdfunding in a desperate, but ultimately unsuccessful, attempt to keep competing.

“There was no tourism. We had no support from anywhere,” he said. “That was one of the reasons I needed to come up with crowdfunding, but … it didn’t turn out to be much.

“Without funding, I couldn’t reach my training, I couldn’t catch up with the races.

“I managed four results (to qualify for the Games) and I needed five. The fifth one, I fell short. If there was time, money … it could have been done.”

This time around, Khan is supported by Indian conglomerate JSW Group’s sports arm, JSW Sports, which is covering 40% of his costs. The Jammu and Kashmir government is covering 10%, he said, and he is paying the rest himself.

Khan sealed his Olympic berth in slalom in Dubai in November and qualified for giant slalom with a 14th-placed finish in Montenegro in December.

His target is to qualify in the top 30 of both events in Beijing.

Even love took a backseat the past year, with Khan postponing his wedding to focus on qualifying.

“It was up and down whether I should choose the Olympics first or get married first,” he said. “I went and spoke to (my fiancee) and she said okay.

“The families were pointing their eyes towards us … like ‘What are you guys doing delaying and postponing by one more year?’ We said I have to focus on my training and I don’t want to be distracted by anything.

“She’s happy. She supports me.”

(The above article appeared in Reuters Jan. 22, 2022)

Additional information from Indian Express Feb. 4, 2022 article on Arif Khan

The Indian Express carried a report on Khan’s life journey Feb. 4, 2022, when he is already in Beijing.

Khan’s close friend Farhat Naik, recalls how his classmate, the only Indian in the Winter Olympics, primed throughout his life traveling extensively to pursue his passion. Khan’s skiing-lover ather helped him compete in the U.S., Canada and Europe competitions, the Indian Express article reveals.

Khan never let his losses affect his motivation to get to the top and kept getting back to practice. When he missed the Pyongyang Games four years ago “He was bitterly disappointed. But he didn’t let that demotivate him. He went and trained with double drive the next winter,” Farhat told Indian Express, adding that when the family approached private companies, they had not even heard of the slalom.

Stretching his money by traveling alone, carrying his heavy baggage, having to deal with changing rules for types of skis, even having to spend on expensive socks, were challenges Khan had to deal with, always helped by a father who had faith in him.

Foreign media pursued him as the only Indian trying for the Olympics and in the ski roster at international games, his friend told Indian Express. He even got to practise down under when friends in New Zealand helped him ride the snow peaks during their winters.

Qualifying for India was no easy task, practicing on the Gulmarg slopes along at 5:30 am, then doing his physical training all day, his friend said.

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