Winter Olympics: Arif Khan, India’s sole athlete, gets his moment in the snow

India’s sole athlete at the Beijing Olympics hails from Kashmir. Arif Khan took up winter sports after being encouraged by his father, who owns a ski shop and was taught everything there is about the Himalayas by Colonel Narendra Kumar – one of the first Indians to scale the Siachen Glacier and a team member of Operation Meghdoot to seize control of the Siachen Glacier in 1984.

‘If you’re an athlete, this should be your dream,’ said Gulmarg’s Arif in an Instagram post while standing in front of the Olympic rings at the Yanqing National Alpine Ski Centre, 90 kms northwest of Beijing. He is India’s lone entrant to the 2022 Winter Olympics and made history when he became the first Indian man to qualify for two events – slalom and giant slalom – in a single Winter Olympics.

Qualifying for his first Olympics took place on the slopes of Dubai’s artificial snow. It was further followed by a quota spot in men’s giant slalom, earned in Kolasin, Montenegro.

This dream of Arif’s was set in motion way before he was even born. In the 1980s, Colonel Kumar and his family set up Mercury Himalayan Explorations. For 36 years, Yasin Khan worked with India’s premier mountaineering family, setting up a tourism industry in Gulmarg. He was part of the business when Colonel Kumar’s daughter Shailaja participated in the 1988 Calgary Winter Olympics for India in the slalom event.

Six years after he saw his employer’s daughter become the first Indian woman to participate in the Winter Olympics, Yasin set up his own shop in Gulmarg, across a slope that received fresh snowfall. And then his son prompted him to dream.

“I still remember the day I entered Gulmarg for the first time. There was so much snow when we were walking through those galis towards my father’s ski shop. The next day he stood beside me and helped me put on the boots, tighten the bindings and get onto the skis,” remembers Arif.

It took the senior Khan four days to be convinced that he might have just seen another Olympian-in-the-making. It wasn’t just the fish-to-water nature of his son’s first snow experience, but the lack of fear he showed while skiing downhill. It was almost as if he was born to do this.

Darpok nahi tha (he wasn’t scared),” his father sums up.

That statement would ring true as a young Arif began to travel outside India even as he hit teenage years. The family’s business – Kashmir Alpine Ski Shop at Highlands Park – made enough to dedicate a major chunk of earnings to send him for competitions across the world. Turkey, Spain, Iran – wherever there was an icy slope, a young Kashmiri teenager, all alone in that part of the world, would be present.

But money soon became a factor in Arif’s development. He was well aware of pioneers like Shiva Kesavan, who was always in fund-raising mode, with no real government support for the Winter Olympians. Years of being in the wilderness, and slowly clawing his way into the contention in a sport that barely made an impression on the rest of the country, would have made someone less determined give up. But the family business kept Arif afloat. Friends and well-wishers kept chipping in over the years.

Controversy & setback

It wasn’t until 2017 that Arif had his first real sniff of a hope of making it to the Olympics. The Pyeongchang Games were finally meant to be his debut on the biggest stage. But the lean business years of 2016-18 had hit the family hard. Coupled with that, a controversy erupted in the Indian winter sports community when news leaked that Arif had visited Pakistan.

“He was the South Asian champion at the time. Invites for the event in Pakistan had been sent to the best skiers in the world. The ski federation president gave him permission to go as well. He was called an anti-Indian,” said Arif’s father.

Arif was supposed to take part in five different events in an attempt to qualify shortly after. But the turbulent period had taken its toll and he failed in his attempts to enter his first Olympics. “I missed out on the funding for the Olympics by Rs 1.5 lakh,” chuckled the former Army School alumni over phone when recalling the setback.

With PyeongChang in the rear-view mirror, Arif decided to double up on his training as well as his funding sources. But a couple of years later, Covid struck. Business in the Kashmir Valley, already bottlenecked, was suddenly a trickle.

“Tourism is always dependent on the situation in Kashmir. If there is a good situation, tourism is good. A huge number of people come in for winter sport activities. But if the situation in the valley is different, hardly anyone comes,” Arif told The Indian Express. But then the first wave subsided and Indians started to flock in record numbers to Gulmarg. Difficulty in going abroad was what did the trick, said Arif.

“Covid actually brought business back to us because there was nowhere else to go. Europe was closed for Indian tourists and the only destination that was open was Kashmir. Almost 50 percent more people came during this period for tourism. It was one of the best years we have ever had in Kashmir.”

The sudden rise in business, coupled with Arif having to sit out the 2020 season because of the virus, brought about a bump in his wallet unlike previous years. A European training stint followed and then a chance encounter in Gulmarg turned everything on its head.

A member of the Jindal family was skiing in Gulmarg and a successful meeting between father, son and corporate funding took place. Today, 40 percent of Arif’s training expenses are taken care of by JSW. The rest come from his inclusion in Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS) as well as the Jammu and Kashmir government’s coffers.

“We tried to make the story of someone from India being a part of the Winter Olympics as the main attraction,” said Arif. He succeeded in doing so, even though it took over 120 international events, disappointments galore – even a wedding postponement. Early morning on Sunday, that success gets its moment in the snow.

Watch Arif Khan’s Giant Slalom event on February 13, Sunday on (Run 1 – 7:45 AM IST, Run 2 – 11:15 AM IST)

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