As the opening ceremony kicked off on February 4th, Arif Khan led India’s singular contingent at the 2022 Beijing Olympics—a moment he describes as a ‘childhood dream.’

While other nations such as the US, Canada, and Russia flew in delegations of over 200 people, Khan, who hails from Kashmir, proudly unfurled the Indian flag while leading a tiny contingent of four. With his slalom skiing events set to take off on February 13th, let’s get to know India’s only winter athlete better, and his journey into the world of skiing.

 

How did Arif Khan become a skier?

Arif Khan skis for India
Credit: Arif Khan, Facebook

“I was probably three or four when my father, Yaseen Khan, took me to the slopes in Gulmarg in January 1994,” said Khan in an interview with The Tribune. I was given a pair of skis and the next day I was trying to navigate the slopes. In a couple of days, I got the hang of it and within a week, I was able to ski down the slopes and control my speed.”

The athlete largely attributes his connection with the sport to his father, who ran a skiing business as an instructor in Gulmarg—a northwest J&K hill station famous for being one of India’s few winter sports hotspots. As an expensive sport, training and competition funds were hard to come by. “If the season went well,” he recounts, “I would have enough savings to train and travel abroad; and if the tourists stayed away— it’s Kashmir, after all— we would struggle.”

In his late teens, Khan and his family would work hard to send him abroad for serious coaching. He had already beaten several senior pros as a junior, and channelled this energy into the Asian Alpine Championships, as well as hard-earned coaching sessions spent at Switzerland and New Zealand back in 2008.

 

Going Pro: How does Arif Khan support himself?

Arif Khan skis at Cortina 2021
Credit: Arif Khan, Facebook

Despite very basic support for winter sports in the country, Khan eventually did secure some sponsorship. “Things have improved as 40 percent of my expenses are now taken care of by JSW Sports, and even the J&K Government gave me some funding,” he explained. “I now hear that the Sports Ministry has approved Rs 17 lakh for me under its TOPS scheme.”

According to Khan, this is not enough, but he admits he is grateful that the government recognizes talent and is trying to support the sport of skiing.

What will Arif Khan participate in?

Arif Khan at the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics Ceremony
Credit: CCTV

“I’m happy and proud that I’ll be the sole representative from our 1.4 billion population in Beijing,” says the skier. “It’s not a big deal as many athletes have represented our country in the Winter Games, but my feat is historic because I’ll be the first to participate in two events—slalom and giant slalom.”

Slalom is a major alpine skiing event, along with downhill, ‘super-G, giant slalom, and combined formats. Introduced in the Swiss Winter Olympics of 1948, competitors have to ski down a slope with a vertical descent of 180 to 200 metres, and 140 to 180 metres for women. The skiers pass through ‘gates’ – two plastic poles that alternate between red and blue markings, through a predetermined course.

The difference between slalom and giant slalom is simply the distance between the poles—Super-G slalom has the widest. The sport requires a keen balance between technical skill and nerves of steel. Competitive skiers can reach upto 150 kilometres per hour on downhill courses; that’s over twice the average speed of a recreational skier.

 

Arif Khan’s personal challenges

Arif Khan skis for India
Credit: Arif Khan, Facebook

In many ways, professional sports training is a difficult and gruelling process, made even worse due to the global pandemic. “I could not train for almost all of 2020 due to Covid-19,” shares Khan. “I didn’t lose hope as you cannot dwell on things that are not in your control. As soon as it was OK to travel, I was out of the country. I’ve been out throughout 2021, either for training or for competitions.”

Despite all odds, he is proud of himself and hopes to secure a competitive result at the Olympic stage.

“My best result has been a 45th place at the World Ski Championships in Italy last year. While I’m confident about my training and performance, in Beijing it will come down to my second run. In my sport, the first run is where generally the athletes are a little conservative, but they let it all go in the second. If all goes well, then who knows what I can achieve. No one can guarantee a medal, but one thing is certain—I’ll ski aggressively.”

With a few days to go before Khan’s Olympic debut, we can’t wait to see him make India proud and take the sport to another level. “I’ve trained well and I have the experience to compete on artificial ice, so nothing I face in Beijing will be a surprise,” he says. “I’m ready to go for it. I really hope that I’ll give a performance that will make our country proud.”

 

Arif Khan will compete according to the following schedule:

 

February 13th, Sunday

Giant Slalom Run 1 – 7:45 am IST

Giant Slalom Run 2 – 11:15 am IST

February 16th, Wednesday

Slalom Run 1 – 7:45 am IST

Slalom Run 2 – 11:15 am IST

Venue: Xiaohaituo Alpine Skiing Field in Yanqing District.

The Beijing Winter Olympics will be streamed live on Olympics.com. Khan’s events will also be broadcast live on DD Sports on television.

 

(Featured Image Credit: Arif Khan, Facebook, CCTV)