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Arif Khan, India's lone 2022 Winter Olympian, hopes for better infrastructure in country's skiing hotspots

Hot on the pursuit of his snowy dreams at the Beijing Winter Olympics, Kashmir's alpine skier Arif Khan is on a mission to transform India into a top skiing destination.

Arif Khan Beijing Winter Olympics Kashmir Gulmarg Ski Destination

Indian alpine skier Arif Khan was the lone entrant from India at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics 


Sohinee Basu

Updated: 1 Feb 2022 6:46 PM GMT

In Kashmir, great, grand chunks of snow - soft, cotton-white have already caked the mountains over Gulmarg - India's very own winter paradise. And if you were to chance upon those snowy slopes of Gulmarg in the fag end of January, you would have seen India's lone entrant for the Beijing Winter Olympics, one Arif Khan, skidding, speeding and skiing tirelessly as the countdown to the 2022 Winter Games ticked too fast.

Having qualified in November last year during a Dubai event for the Beijing Games that begin from 4th February, Arif Khan was back in Gulmarg - the skiing haven (or, heaven, if you will) in India, for a last dash of practice and to motivate his fellow Kashmiris about winter sports before he flew over to Beijing to compete in two events - alpine skiing slalom and the giant slalom.

It's deep winter in Kashmir now and the leaves have yellowed and fallen off the branches of the towering chinar's and the mercury dips to minus figures as the Pir Panjal has traded its verdant greenery with snowy capes - and Arif Khan, taking time off his chock-a-block schedule sat down to have a chat with The Bridge, just as dusk played on the snowy mountains outside the window of his house in Tangmarg.

Visibly excited for the upcoming Winter Games where he will be the only Indian medal-contender, Arif quickly recalls the hard work that he has been putting in, working towards D-Day.

"I've been training in Europe for a while now, after the Beijing Winter Olympics qualifications. I have trained in Austria, Italy and a few other places. We are training on the same surface that we'll be competing in Beijing. I'm training in Gulmarg now also," the 31-year-old Jammu and Kashmir based alpine skier tells The Bridge, on the eve of his departure to New Delhi from Srinagar, onwards to Beijing.

The Beijing Games is going to be unique in several ways - be it the introduction of a female-only sport like monobob to having the Games entirely done on 'fake' or artificial snow surfaces for the first time - it'll be truly revolutionary.

"The artificial snow being used is actually a great thing. The slopes can be made very compact and hard so that it's really feasible for the turnings and curves, keeping up with the speed, the angulation and the movements," Arif explains, dispelling all meandering thoughts about how the manufactured snow will play a role.

Cradling a snowy dream

Arif Khan will take part in two events at the Beijing Winter Olympics (Source: Instagram/Arif Khan)

It was on the very slopes of the Apharwat peak and Khilanmarg that India's only athlete for Beijing Winter Olympics, Arif Khan spent his days growing up - sliding and gliding down the slopes, come every long winter.

While most others in the Kashmir valley would await the cold months with dread, for little Arif - winter was when Gulmarg turned into a wonderland for him.

"My favourite part about growing up in Gulmarg is definitely, the mountains. We have such beautiful mountains, forests, ski slopes and the hills, it's really enjoyable," Arif gushed, revealing that he would spend most of the summers mountain biking or playing golf and once winter arrived, down he would swish down the inviting snowy slopes.

"My main focus was to develop the muscles and the body so that I can do my training and skill development better in the winters," Arif mentioned, his eyes sparkling as he talks more about Kashmir and the mountain life he has been bewitched with since childhood.

The Gulmarg valley in October (left) and Gulmarg as a winter wonderland (right)

"My father started a ski shop back in the 1970s. He used to rent the gear to the tourists and also teach skiing and then he started an adventure activity company, both for winters and summers," Arif recalled, taking us back to the very origins of his snowy love affair.

Arif's father, Yaseen Khan, aside from running the ski shop and teaching skiing, also harboured great interest for his son who almost immediately took a keen interest in the sport when Yaseen introduced it to him over two decades back in 1994 - after which there has been no looking back for Arif, whose eyes are now focussed on a modest top-30 finish at the Games.

Egged on by the family support, Arif began to dream big and nothing except seeing the tricolour of the country flying high because of sporting achievements brought him more joy.

"My family always stood firm and a part of our business was always to promote me. Whatever we earned, a part of it was kept for me to travel abroad and train initially," Khan explained, elaborating on how every blood, toil and sweat was spent on harbouring this Olympic dream - borne not just by Arif alone, but collectively by his family.

Having even postponed his wedding and the wazwan-feasting for later, Arif's dream is not be trifled with. Even though both his family and that of his fiancé's were a little stunned by the decision to prioritise the Games more than the wedding - Arif's passion and ultimately, the qualification was enough to get them all on board to cheer for him as he gets ready to compete in his two events on February 13th and 16th.

Breaking into a laugh, Arif mentions, "I really wanted to go ahead with my dream to be an Olympian - for 15 years. I actually spoke to my fiance, I told her about my story, about my dreams and she agreed - she was even happy listening to it," he said.

With quiet confidence, he then quips, "There is something I'm looking at in the Winter Olympics and once it's done - it'll surprise everybody," Khan admits.

Dreaming of a different Kashmir, a better India

Arif Khan (Source: Instagram/Arif Khan)

Although Arif has spent the majority of the past few months training abroad, his heart and soul beats for Kashmir - a land with the most potent promise to transform into a top skiing destination.

Passionate about pushing Kashmir towards a new dawn and using sport as his instrument to bring about this change, Arif hopes that his Winter Olympics sojourn can showcase India's glorious mountains to the world and also inspire the youth to pursue sporting activities.

"My main goal to ski in Beijing is to take India as one of the ski destinations because we live in the Himalayas," Khan explained. "We have really beautiful mountains which are even higher than the Alps and other North American mountains. This is one of the big reasons why the sport can be promoted and developed in the country," he mentions, affirming that this is the long-term goal he would want to work towards.

In the days leading up to the Games, Arif trained and interacted closely with his fellow Kashmiris and the reception has left the 31-year-old skier overwhelmed. "It has been so charming and full of delight for every Kashmiri, they are so happy whenever they meet me, see me training on the slopes," Khan amicably tells The Bridge.

Forever the hotbed of political turmoil, Kashmir's potential, especially with winter sports, is an area that begs for more exploring and Arif knows only too well about it, frequenting as he has to several international championships for skiing.

"I have especially come back to Gulmarg so that I can motivate the people towards this sport or any other sport, going for the higher events in the world. The best thing we can do is educate people and point them towards taking up good sports. Good sports can always lead you towards the highest goals," he says in a flow.

"They can help you develop good value systems as a civilian. Being a sportsman, I always thought that if you can drive yourself towards the highest and prove it and get there - then the rest can follow you," Khan adds convincingly.

"My main motto behind coming back to Kashmir was to show some adventure to the youth. This is one of the best things that has happened recently in our state," Arif said, beaming, as years of his hard work are so close to seeing fruition at the Beijing Winter Olympics.

The path to reaching this day was not easy for Arif although his family left no stones unturned to keep this dream raging and alive.

"The challenges actually came later. In the beginning, it was just good to train in Gulmarg, develop skills for basic and intermediate levels," Arif recalled. "But later it became difficult to keep up with the training and races because the infrastructure required for this sport is not yet seen in this country yet. We have the basics," Khan confessed pensively.

"It was because of this that I had to travel to Europe to train with the coaches, in various disciplines and programmes," Arif clarified, stressing the potential of Gulmarg, belts of Himachal Pradesh around Manali and Uttarkhand's Auli region to prosper as skiing destinations with the right infrastructure.

Arif Khan's road to the Beijing Olympics may have been snowy but it definitely wasn't smooth - showing once again how true passion can bloom against all odds. As Khan prepares to do the whole nation proud in Beijing, his one focus remains on a different tomorrow for Kashmir and India - that is more sporting.

"My goal is to have good athletes from India competing at the world level, proving that India has the talent and the muscle to be the best in the world," Khan asserts, before concluding, as the sun spilled the last of its golden rays, in hues of a freshly-brewed cup of kahwa, drizzling all over the snow-draped Pir Panjal.

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