Bengaluru- When India’s Arif Khan steps into Beijing’s National Stadium for the opening ceremony of next month’s Winter Olympics, it will mark the culmination of a journey spanning more than a decade.
Khan, who qualified in the slalom and giant slalom, is India’s sole representative at the Games, and his path to the Olympics from the snowy slopes of conflict-ridden Kashmir was far from straightforward.
“It will be a big responsibility, to be one in a billion and carry the flag,” said Khan, 31. “It will be an inspiring moment.”
Khan was introduced to skiing aged four by his father and turned professional 14 years ago when he was 18. He has represented India in 127 international events, competing mostly in Europe on a shoestring budget.
“(In India) this sport is not that popular,” he said. You are not supported financially. This is the biggest challenge.
“If you’re training for world-class events…you need at least €110,000 ($124,740) per season. If you’re only training for the Olympics, you need around €75,000.
“It’s the budget. If you don’t have that budget, you’re not going anywhere.
These numbers represent a significant hurdle for an athlete from a country where the daily minimum wage is around 176 Indian rupees ($2.37).
Khan’s career has been funded primarily by his family. His father has operated a travel agency and ski equipment store in Gulmarg, Kashmir since the 1980s.
“Everything we earned, we (reserve) some of it for my training,” Khan added. “Our main income depends on tourism.
“If there is a good year of tourism, it can help me train and travel for the races for three to four months.
But life in Kashmir is unpredictable.
Khan’s Himalayan home is at the center of a long-running conflict between India and neighboring Pakistan, with curfews, lockdowns and other restrictions commonplace even before COVID-19 further complicated matters .
In the run-up to the 2018 Games, unrest in Kashmir led to the drying up of tourism, forcing Khan to turn to crowdfunding in a desperate – but ultimately unsuccessful – bid to keep competing.
“There was no tourism. We had no support from anywhere,” he said. “That was one of the reasons I needed crowdfunding, but…it didn’t turn out to be much.
“Without funding, I couldn’t reach my training, I couldn’t catch up on races.
“I got four results (to qualify for the Games) and I needed five. The fifth, I failed. If there had been time, money…it could have been done.
This time around, Khan is backed by Indian conglomerate JSW Group’s sports arm, JSW Sports, which covers 40% of his costs. The Jammu and Kashmir government covers 10%, he said, and pays the rest itself.
Khan sealed his Olympic spot in slalom in Dubai in November and qualified for the giant slalom with a 14th-place finish in Montenegro in December.
His goal is to qualify in the top 30 of both events in Beijing.
Even love took a back seat last year as Khan postponed her wedding to focus on qualifying.
“There were ups and downs whether I had to choose the Olympics first or get married first,” he said. “I went to talk to (my fiancée) and she said okay.
“Families were pointing their eyes at us…like ‘What are you doing delaying and postponing for another year?’ We said I needed to focus on my training and didn’t want to be distracted by anything.
“She’s happy. She supports me.”
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