Skier reaches Beijing after tough slalom

When India's Arif Khan steps into the Beijing National Stadium for the Winter Olympics' opening ceremony today, it will mark the culmination of a journey over a decade in the making.

Arif, who has qualified in slalom and giant slalom, is India's sole representative at the Games and his path to the Olympics from the snowy slopes of Kashmir was far from straightforward.

"It's going to be a big responsibility, being one in a billion and carrying the flag," the 31-year-old told Reuters. "That will be an inspirational moment."

Arif was introduced to skiing at the age of four by his father and turned professional 14 years ago at 18. He has represented India in 127 international events, competing mainly in Europe on a shoestring budget.

"In India this sport is not that popular," he said. "You don't get financially supported. That's the biggest challenge.

"If you're training for world-level events, you require at least 110,000 euros ($166,970) a season. If you're training just for the Olympics, you require about 75,000 euros.

"That's the budget. If you don't have this budget, you're not going to reach anywhere."

Arif's career has been funded mainly by his family. His father Mohammad Yaseen Khan has operated a tour company and ski equipment shop in Gulmarg, Kashmir, since the 1980s.

Gulmarg is one of the world's highest ski resorts that offers the chance to ski in deep, fresh snow. It can be reached only by helicopter and the Himalayan views are breathtaking.

"Whatever we used to earn, we set aside part of it for my training," said Arif. "Our major income depends on tourism.

"If there's a good year of tourism, it can help me train and travel for races for three to four months."

But life in Kashmir is unpredictable.

Arif's Himalayan home is at the centre of a long-running conflict between India and Pakistan, with curfews, lockdowns and other restrictions commonplace even before Covid-19 complicated things further.

"There have been real difficulties going through the long-lasting conflict and many other issues," said Arif. "But, if you have a dream and you want to live with your dream, nobody can stop you really. You have to be brave."

In the build-up to the 2018 Winter Olympics, unrest in Kashmir led to tourism drying up, forcing Arif to turn to crowdfunding in a desperate, but ultimately unsuccessful, attempt to keep competing.

"There was no tourism. We had no support from anywhere," he said. "That was one of the reasons I needed to come up with crowdfunding, but it didn't turn out to be much.

"Without funding, I couldn't do my training, I couldn't catch up with the races.

"I managed four results (to qualify for the Olympics) and I needed five. The fifth one, I fell short. If there was time, money... it could have been done."

This time around, Arif has the backing of Indian conglomerate JSW Group's sports arm JSW Sports, which is covering 40 per cent of his costs.

The Jammu and Kashmir government is covering 10 per cent and he is paying the rest himself.

Arif sealed his Olympic berth in slalom in Dubai in November last year and qualified for giant slalom with a 14th place in Montenegro in December.

His target is to finish among the top 30 in both events in Beijing.

Arif mostly competes and trains in Europe and has appeared in four World Championships, his best result being 45th in the giant slalom in Italy last year.

Even love took a back seat the past year, with Arif postponing his wedding to focus on qualifying.

"It was up and down whether I should choose the Olympics first or get married first," he said. "I went and spoke to (my fiancee) and she said okay.

"The families were pointing their eyes towards us... like 'what are you guys doing delaying and postponing by one more year?' We said I have to focus on my training and I don't want to be distracted by anything.

"She's happy. She supports me."

Arif would like to use his Olympic debut to promote India as a skiing destination and raise sporting standards. "The amount and quality of snow we receive is good," he said. "If we get some more infrastructure developed in the next few years, we might really reach the level of the European athletes."

But he has a mountain to climb. None of India's previous Winter Olympians have won a medal and Arif's chances of changing that are slim.

"If you do good in a country where you have 1.4 billion people, definitely there will be people who will love you," he said.

"So I'm introducing skiing, winter sports to the people. It's their choice if they like it or not."

Reuters, AFP

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