Arif Khan walked along the charted route of the Beijing National Stadium – the Bird’s Nest – clasping the Indian flag in his gloved hands during the Opening Ceremony of the 2022 Winter Games. His march was measured and sure-footed, and betrayed no nerves despite him being the only Indian – sportsperson or political – to be present for the at the Winter Olympics.
Then again though, Khan has long been accustomed to charting his own path in his skiing career all alone. To be a winter sports athlete in India is a lonely battle – the Indian government has not reinstated winter sports as a priority since dropping it from the list in 1998. And so, Khan’s story was destined to be one of struggle.
It would take something unique and special for Khan to earn a spot at the pinnacle of winter sports. He found that opening in, of all places, the artificial slopes of Dubai – known more for its shopping and harsh desert weather. At the Entry League FIS competition in November, he finished ninth, 11th, 11th and 10th in the four races to earn a spot in the Slalom event at Beijing 2022. A month later, in Montenegro, he won a quota in the Giant Slalom event, becoming the first ever Indian to qualify for two different events in the same edition of the Winter Games.
It was only recently that the blessings of the TOPS program made room for him. Before that, as he put it, “my family never stepped back in terms of providing me financial help.”
Born in Gulmarg, Kashmir, where pristine snow-capped peaks welcomed anybody interested in skiing, Khan was introduced to the sport as a four-year-old by his father Yaseen. The older Khan is an avid skier himself who has worked as a ski guide since 1980. He also runs a skiing equipment shop – the profits of which went in his son’s career.
“It was in 1994,” Khan, 31, told The Hindu about when he picked up the sport.
“We had to walk about 500 metres to the ski shop. And there was thick snow. My father had groomed a small ski slope just outside the shop. We started (skiing) at around 9:30 AM and went on for hours.”
By 10 he decided to turn professional, at 12 he won gold in his first appearance at a junior national championship. By 16 he had started competing at international events, starting with a 23rd place finish at a competition in Japan.
“By 2008 I was skiing faster than other Indian athletes and that’s when I decided I could think of going for the Olympics,” he told BBC.
He’s been a regular at the World Championships as well ever since, with his best finish, 45th, coming last year at the edition in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy. But it was the Winter Olympics that was always out of reach.
And not necessarily for lack of performance.
Arif Khan at the World Championships
|45||Giant Slalom Men||2021||Cortina d'Ampezzo, ITA||1:50.03|
|59||Slalom Men||2013||Schladming, AUT||2:30.99|
|79||Slalom Men||2019||Are, SWE||2:06.72|
|91||Giant Slalom Men||2013||Schladming, AUT||3:09.32|
|101||Giant Slalom Men||2015||Vail / Beaver Creek, USA||2:27.21|
|116||Giant Slalom Men||2019||Are, SWE||2:45.59|
PyeongChang 2018 heartbreak
Ahead of the PyeongChang Games in 2018, he had started a crowd-funding program to try and help gather enough finances to take him to the required qualification tournaments. He managed to go to four, but ran out of money to go for the fifth event that might have seen him make the cut.
Heart-broken, all his attention turned towards Beijing.
So sharp was his focus that he even delayed his wedding, originally scheduled for September 2021, in order to travel and compete – all in the attempts to gain that illusive Olympic quota.
Some support did come his way through corporates looking to invest in his career.
“(Private companies) would say, ‘We’ll see, but we don’t even know the rules’ and hand over Rs 10,000 or something,” said Farhat Naik, Khan’s close friend, to The Indian Express.
Sponsorship by JSW covered half his expenses, and Khan would lap up any and all support he’d get. It allowed him to shift his training base to an international academy in Austria in March last year. Eventually, gliding down the artificial slopes of a shopping mall in Dubai – with people were watching through the mall windows – he won the quota.
Only social media posts managed to capture him walking through the Bird’s Nest Stadium last Friday. A lot more will get to see him when he takes to the slopes in Beijing, starting with the Giant Slalom event on February 13, and then the Slalom on February 16. That’s when he’ll be living his Olympic dream, hoping to make the most of the lonely struggle.