“I chose skiing because I belong to mountains and snow,” says Arif Khan, who in November became the first athlete from India to earn a ticket to the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.
The 31-year-old is from a part of Kashmir that is often termed “paradise on Earth” for its unique beauty and picturesque setting. Like most parts of the sub-continent, cricket and football are two of the most played and followed games in Kashmir. But Khan took a different route.
He was six when his father, Yaseen Khan, introduced him to skiing. Yaseen owns a ski equipment shop at Gulmarg, a world-famous ski resort in northern Kashmir. As Khan lives in Goiwara Hajibal, a village not more than a 30-minute drive from Gulmarg, he spent most of his childhood with ski poles in hand, gliding over the snowy slopes.
“I always wanted to play a different sport and make it big in that. Cricket and football are very common but skiing is an attractive game when it comes to winters, especially if you live in the mountainous areas. It is a famous sport,” he says.
Khan started taking skiing more seriously as time passed. It was no longer a fun pastime or something to keep him busy in winter. At 18, he went professional.
“My first trip was to Switzerland. Thankfully, it wasn’t much different from Kashmir. When I landed on the Swiss mountains, it looked pretty similar to the conditions that I witnessed back home,” he recalls.
“A thought came across my mind: If the people in Europe can play this sport professionally, why can’t I, especially when we have the same snowbound mountains? That’s when I started believing alpine skiing is what I will do in life.”
Not an easy sail
Khan, however, faced challenges steeper than the slopes on which he glides. Skiing is an expensive sport. The equipment is costly and needs to be upgraded constantly. On top of that, the infrastructure was not as good at Gulmarg as elsewhere and he didn’t have a full-time coach to train him.
“It was tough. I had to face countless difficulties but I was hopeful that I would definitely make it big and compete with athletes at the world level,” he says.
His father’s shop at Gulmarg was and continues to be Khan’s base. He spent most of his time learning the sport there. But after some years, he realised that he needed better facilities to make a breakthrough.
“I needed the advanced level of training and infrastructure to develop skills and practice, which wasn’t available in Gulmarg. I wanted to go to Europe but there were no sponsors to support me. I had no financial backing other than my own,” he says.
“The situation in Kashmir was always sensitive and it … [affected me] mentally at various times. However, with some assistance, I managed to continue even though the training sessions were short, just one third of the season. But I never stopped.”
His struggles did bear fruit. He represented India in as many as 127 international events, including four appearances at each of the World Championship and Asia Games. “My family supported me the most in training and equipment until I grew up. From 2015, I used to work in my father’s tour company, which was one of the main sources of income that I used for my travel and training,” he says.
Big break and priorities
Khan’s major breakthrough came in 2018 but it had its fair share of challenges. He was confident of making it to the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, but failed to qualify due to things beyond his control. “In 2018 the situation wasn’t as good as years before, the main ski federation was suspended by the Indian Olympic Association. We had no one to provide us with any kind of support. There was no sponsor either,” he says.
He continued to train hard and wait for the next opportunity. He was supposed to get married earlier in 2021. “I had to postpone my marriage because I wanted to prepare for the Olympics. It has always been my dream to represent India at the Winter Olympics and that was the first priority.
“I have been training throughout the year. We were invited to take part in the international event held at an indoor ski dome in Dubai [a qualifier for the Olympics]. I competed and made enough result points to qualify for [the] Beijing Winter Olympics,” he says.
“For the first time, I received some financial help as the government, the current lieutenant governor [Manoj Sinha], helped me this year with equipment costs. I also have [management company] JSW Sports helping me with 50% [of the] training fee this year.”
Khan’s qualification news delighted everyone in Kashmir, but there was one fan who was the most grateful for his success. “My fiancée is very happy that I could make it through the qualification. She always supports and inspires me. She now wishes to see me doing well in the upcoming biggest challenge of competing at the Olympic Games,” says Khan.
It doesn’t end here for the athlete, though. Making it to the Olympics was his dream but he also wants to make a mark at the world’s biggest sporting event.
“I have been training for a year. My preparations are good and the best possible achievement would be winning a medal. But at the same time, the competition level is so high that no one can predict. I am looking forward to giving my best.”
Khan says that, if nothing else, his journey will inspire the next generation to pursue skiing, which is not a popular sport on the sub-continent. “Definitely, it [Olympic qualification] is an inspiration to the young people of India and Jammu and Kashmir. I believe that more and more youth will now be attracted towards this sport.
“In Kashmir, Gulmarg has very nice basic and intermediate facilities to offer, where you can learn and practise your skills for any higher level of skiing sports.”