Bangalore – When Arif Khan of India enters Beijing’s National Stadium for next month’s Winter Olympics opening ceremony, it will mark the culmination of a journey spanning more than a decade.
Khan, who qualified in slalom and giant slalom, is India’s sole representative at the Games and his journey from the snowy slopes of conflict-torn Kashmir to the Olympics has been far from straightforward.
“It will be a great responsibility to be one in a billion and to carry the flag,” said 31-year-old Khan. “It’s going to be an inspiring moment.”
Khan was introduced to skiing by his father at the age of four and turned pro 14 years ago at age 18. He has represented India in 127 international events, competing on a minimal budget mostly in Europe.
“[In India]this sport is not that popular,” he said. They are not financially supported. That’s the biggest challenge.
“If you’re training for world-class events… you need at least €110,000 ($124,740) per season. If you only train for the Olympics, you need about 75,000 euros.
“That’s the budget. If you don’t have that budget, you’re not going to get anywhere.”
Those numbers present a significant hurdle for an athlete from a country where the daily minimum wage is about 176 Indian rupees (US$2.37).
Khan’s career was mainly funded by his family. His father has run a travel company and ski equipment shop in Gulmarg, Kashmir since the 1980s.
“Whatever we used to earn, we set aside some of it for my training,” Khan added. “Our main income depends on tourism.
“If there is a good tourism year, it can help me to train and travel for races for three to four months.”
But life in Kashmir is unpredictable.
Khan’s Himalayan home is at the center of a long-running conflict between India and neighboring Pakistan, with curfews, lockdowns and other restrictions the order of the day even before COVID-19 complicated things further.
Ahead of the 2018 Games, unrest in Kashmir caused tourism to dry 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 anywhere,” he said. “That was one of the reasons I had to come up with crowdfunding, but … it didn’t turn out to be much.
“Without funding I couldn’t achieve my training, I couldn’t catch up on the races.
“I got four results (to qualify for the games) and I needed five. I fell short on the fifth. If you had the time, money… you could have done it.”
This time around, Khan will be joined by Indian conglomerate JSW Group’s sports division, JSW Sports, which will cover 40% of his costs. The government of Jammu and Kashmir pays 10%, he said, and he pays the rest himself.
Khan secured his Olympic spot in slalom in Dubai in November and qualified for giant slalom in December with a 14th place finish in Montenegro.
His goal is to qualify in the top 30 at both events in Beijing.
Even love took a back seat last year as Khan postponed his wedding to focus on qualifying.
“It’s been a toss-up about whether I should go to the Olympics first or get married first,” he said. “I went and spoke to (my fiancee) and she said okay.
“The families had their eyes on us … like, ‘Why are you delaying and postponing this for another year?’ We said I have to concentrate on my training and I don’t want to be distracted by anything.
“She’s happy. She supports me.”
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, Quality journalism is more important than ever.
By subscribing you can help us get the story right.