North Kashmir’s Tangmarg area, among the most-frequented tourist places of the Valley, is draped in snow. A narrow serpentine nine km road from the main market takes you to the sleepy village of Goiwarain Hajibal,which is sparsely populated and silenced by the latest snowfall. A three-storey house, with snow-white exteriors and grey patterns, is humming with neighbours, relatives and friends who are trickling in on and off to enquire more about the status of the journey of skier Arif Khan, 31, to Beijing.
Alpine skier Arif Khan is the first from Kashmir and the only Indian this year to qualify for the 2022 Winter Olympics being held in the Chinese capital. He is also the first Indian to qualify for two different events of Winter Olympics and will be slalom and giant slalom alpine skiing in Beijing.
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“Being the only one making it through from1.3 billion is very exciting,” Arif says, the magnitude of the achievement not lost on him. The 31-year-old is back in India for his final training session before the Games begin on February 4.
China marks Arif’s journey coming full circle in many ways. His competitive skiing career began to take shape in 2005 when he participated in junior level international championships and the first pin on his map was in China, after which he went on to compete in places like Japan and Lebanon. He decided to go professional in 2008, a decision that coincided with his first trip to Europe.
Skiing, especially as a professional sport, is as niche a discipline as they come but growing up near the mountains gave Arif the opportunity to brush shoulders with local skiers and professionals from the Army, who he credits as role models early on.
“If I talk about when I was young and participating at the national level, I would follow the skiers from Himachal, Jammu & Kashmir and from the Army ski team. They were skiing better and faster than me and I would always try to keep up with them when I was younger. I had a natural ability and an affinity for this sport. So once I reached their level, in 2008, I went to Europe for the first time — to Switzerland. It completely opened up mymind just seeing the facilities, the infrastructure, the way they are trained, the staffing coaches, their training schedule and just how different the infrastructure was there. This spurred me on to dive into the sport professionally.”
The person who introduced Arif to the sport and carried him through the ups and downs of building a career in it is his father. Muhammad Yaseen Khan is proud albeit a little media-shy, but has decked up two tables with medals won by his son since he was a 12-year-old — the age when he won his first gold medal in the slalom at the national championship. The walls of the house are also dotted with framed pictures of Arif in action, with his ski poles and skates on. ‘These pictures tell more than what we can put in words about him,’ his family members say as they hold them out to get clicked by the photojournalists.
In 1994, Arif’s father, a tourist guide, would take him along to his small ski outlet, Kashmir Alpine Ski Shop, located around 20 km away from his house in the nearby ski destination of Gulmarg. With each passing day, Arif took to snow racing the way a fish takes to water.
“He would dabble with the ski poles and skates in the shop. He donned the ski gear when he was just four and started from the baby slopes of Gulmarg and from there he travelled to many countries across the globe,” Khan recalls.
Skiing, which is a test of endurance, perseverance, patience and hard-earned skills, has been a teacher for Arif, a great learner, says Arif’s father.
“This game has many ups and downs. Arif has braved it all. He would get up in the morning and practice and practice and then participate in all the events held in Gulmarg: from district level championships to national events. I remember he could not qualify last time when four Indians made it to the Olympics. But his biggest strength is hoping against hope and striving with his full potential. Here he is,the only qualifier from India for the Olympics (this year),” he adds.
Khan, despite earning a meagre income, has been a great support to Arif and backed him up, in fact hand holding him during his childhood on the slopes and ensuring he gets the game’s basics right.
“There is a lot of talent in this sport in Kashmir. But not all families can afford it. I tried my best to be a supporter of Arif all this while. But it requires a lot of money,” he says.
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The Khans depend heavily on income from tourism. They saw good years and some very trying times which often cast doubts on how much Arif could do in his discipline.
“Some years we had good tourism and my father, Yaseen, could save some money. I would save some money for my training and travel for competitions but other years were so rough. With how things are in Kashmir, things got hard and I had to resort to crowdfunding. That also did not work for me in 2018. I fell short and so I missed the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics,” Arif remembers.
Things might have been completely different for the family if Yaseen had accepted an offer from a friend to relocate to the United States of America. It would have meant exposure to more established infrastructure and a winter sports culture for Arifbut Yaseen turned it down.
“I still have that letter that we received from one of my father’s friends who came to India for a trek in the Himalayas. My father used to be a trekking guide — he would take foreigners to the mountains. This man — his name was Harold and he ran a very successful construction company in Aspen — offered him a place to stay with a green card and the opportunity to relocate there with the whole family. We still have that letter. But my father decided against it because…the mountains we have, the atmosphere we have.. We love this country. Why would we leave it? This is whatmy father said. He loved the culture and the people and our neighbourhood. It would have been too hard to leave,” Arif adds.
But leave, he certainly needed to — to train and keep up with competitors around the world. As Arif explains, Gulmarg was a great launching pad but he needed more if he were to convert aptitude to success.
“In Gulmarg, we have very basic infrastructure which will help an athlete develop his skills to the intermediate level and that’s what I did. But to continue and develop in this sport at the world level, I had to travel to different countries just for the infrastructure and the facilities in terms of the slopes, lifts and just the conditions, the quality of the snow. We couldn’t have all that in Gulmarg earlier but things are changing.”
Arif has seen some dark days along the road to get where he is now. He shares how he sometimes thought of quitting the sport due to the lack of funds and support. “There were certain times in Kashmir where the situation was really tough and one could hardly think of carrying on with trying to be a professional sportsperson. That was one of the hardest parts, especially around three-four years ago when it was so different. I was almost giving up. But the best thing was that I had people. Other than my father, another person who supported me is Zulfiqar Khan. He lives in Mumbai — he’s like my brother. He stood by me always and mentally prepared me and inspired me to keep at my dream but there were moments where I was about to quit and do something else, like maybe start a business or something. But there was always a spark in me. When winter would come and snow fell, I would wake up and get back to the grind,” he says.
Today, Arif is in a better place. His days of desperate crowdfunding appeals, training roadblocks and lack of access to facilities are behind him. Besides sponsorship from JSW Sports, Khan has also been named in the Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS) and received a grant of ₹17.46 lakh for his Olympic preparation in Europe. The attention is finally fully on training, fitness and keeping a clear mind ahead of his campaign in Beijing.
“Financially, right now, everything is settled, everything is working smoothly because everyone has their time in life, and I feel like now is my time. This is not an easy sport to pursue, the costs go over ₹60 lakh a year,” Arif explains.
“Training takes up close to eight to nine hours of the day and it is tiring. I just wait for when it is time to sleep,” he adds sheepishly.
The Games are drawing closer and attention to his event and his performances may rise too but Arif is unfazed. Besides sharing skiing videos on his Facebook handle, he is largely off social media.
“If you are doing something and want to do it well, you just have to stay away from everything else,” he says. Everything here includes his wedding which has been postponed (a detail his father let slip to local media a few weeks ago), allowing him to focus on the Games
“Sabeena has now become more famous than me because of that one line my father said. I had to ask her and her family if we could postpone the wedding because getting to Beijing needed all my attention. We were supposed to get married last year but my focus was more on my dream. I wanted to make everyone happy by creating history first, then later we’ll be able to enjoy everything else. That’s happened now,” Arif says with a big smile across his face.
His achievements and struggle to make a name have inspired many in the Valley including his younger brother Mehraj-ud-Din Khan. A snowboarder, Mehraj-ud Din sees his elder brother as an icon now as he places his faith in his brother’s success in Beijing.
"I too want to scale heights in snowboarding. Arif's achievements have been very motivating for me," Mehraj-ud-Din says. "He will earn a medal and a good name for his country. I am very hopeful," he adds.
Otherwise a nondescript village, Arifhas become a poster-boy not only for the youth of Tangmarg town but also across the Valley. Locals say Arif has managed to infuse a new lease of life for budding skiers in Kashmir who intend to emulate him now. "The government needs to focus on providing infrastructure that matches international standards to the budding skiers," Yaseen says.
Tangmarg and Gulmarg are the only locations in the Valley where skiing is an annual event during the winters and is known to receive the much-required power snow that suits the game and Arif is confident of infrastructure growing to support skiers better in the next five years.
"We are the mountain people. We have the mountains and the snow and everything needed to start this sport. We need to encourage more people to enter this sport and then travel the world and take their careers in the sport forward. It is not hard to establish India as a skiing destination," he adds.
Nuzhat Gul, secretary, the J&K Sports Council, described Arif’s feat to reach the international stage as a big motivating factor for the Valley’s sportsmen. "Arif has already brought a lot of focus on winter sports in Kashmir. We are upscaling the infrastructure of winter sports and will organise more national events to groom the talent," Gul says.
As the Games draw close, Arif’s expectations are grounded and he sees Beijing as an opportunity for bigger and better things irrespective of whether that involves a medal. "Even if a medal does not come, I hope to catch the world’s attention and introduce them to an earnest athlete from India."