Kashmiri Skiing Champion Faces Olympian Challenge at Home
Arif Khan had to crowdfund even his training trips to Europe
Jammu and Kashmir born Arif Khan created history last week when he took part in the men’s giant slalom event at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.
Arif, who hails from Hajibal Tangmarg in the Baramulla district, had dreamt of representing India from his very childhood, and took up snowboarding fairly early in life, winning his first nationwide slalom championship at the age of 12.
Now 31, Khan has represented the nation on four occasions. He has participated in 127 international snowboarding events around the globe so far.
Arif has seen some dark days along the road. He sometimes thought of quitting the sport due to lack of funds and financial support. However, there was a spark in him to become a skiing professional.
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, but Arif never thought of giving up, and the time arrived when he made his country proud.
Taking skiing as a profession was natural to Arif as his father Yasin Khan owns a ski equipment shop in Gulmarg which is near his village. He introduced his son to skiing at the age of four by making a small ski slope just outside the shop.
At the age of 12, Arif Khan won gold in the slalom event in his first appearance at a national championship. He made his international debut for India at the same age, at the junior international ski federation (FIS) event in Yamase, Japan. In 2011 he won two gold medals in slalom and giant slalom at the South Asian Winter Games.
Arif has continued his winning consistency and took part in several more world championships, with his best result being 45th in the giant slalom at the 2021 edition in Italy.
However, skiing being one of the most expensive sports, Arif’s funding comes solely from his father, who runs his ski equipment shop and is fulfilling the hardest dream of Arif Khan.
In 2018, ahead of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, he turned to crowdfunding to train and cover other expenses in the lead up to the Games. But he fell short of his goal by a small margin and his dream was left unrealised.
After the scrapping of Article 370, sports activities too were affected: for last three years not a single skiing championship has been held, for athletes to explore their talents.
Khan was enthusiastic about skiing from early childhood. He found no coach but his father, whose small ski slope proved the first platform for Arif to manage his skis going down the snow slopes of Gulmarg.
Masrat Akhtar, a sister of Arif’s who has earned a PhD in social work, told The Citizen her brother didn’t receive any government or NGO support before he achieved his Olympian feat.
“After his achievement in Beijing, now the government started to help him. He is not only representing Kashmir, but is the face of India at international events,” said Masrat.
She added that Kashmiri skiers are well talented and they can compete with any champions of the world. But the lack of infrastructure and official negligence has left many potential champions disappointed.
Arif’s mother, Zareefa Bano, shared that her son would wake up at 5 in the morning every day so he could hit the slopes by 6 or 6:30 and ski there till midday.
She further said that he did most of his later training in Europe. Now he tirelessly instructs a number of budding skiers in Gulmarg, where his target is to help the next generation of skiers achieve their Olympic dreams.
Yet local skiing athletes are worried, as there is no professional coaching for them on the slopes of Gulmarg.
Despite Kashmir’s mountainous location, it is not a major international winter sports destination. Local skiers ask why, if European countries can create artificial snow slopes, the local administration can’t make it happen on natural snow, which would boost the winter sports activities.
But India doesn’t have an internationally recognized winter sports federation to support athletes. Khan had to crowdfund even his training trips to Europe.
According to Faizan Ahmed Lone, 24 and a professional skier, a skiing spot like Gulmarg can provide basic and intermediate training to lead the athlete to international events.
Lone has won a number of gold medals in national and state based championships. Last year he notched up two golds at the National Championship in Auli, Uttarakhand.
Faizan explained that “this game requires a feasible infrastructure that is mostly used by athletes to prepare for higher events later. But, ski professionals don’t see any such infrastructure here.”
He said that none of the local athletes can bear their own expenses, and are already using their own earnings to get training from other parts of the world.
“If this situation continues, I don’t think that in future any athlete will opt for skiing as a profession in Kashmir.”