Arif Khan: A Kashmiri youth’s struggle for Olympic dream

Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir – Arif Khan had just learned how to walk when he had his first experience of skiing over the snowy slopes of Gulmarg, a picturesque meadow resort in northern Indian-administered Kashmir.

He was four and his father, Muhammad Yaseen, was his first tutor.

Unlike cricket and hockey, winter sports events are not popular in India. However, Kashmir is among the few northern states where winter sports activities take place.

With little infrastructure or professional help, Khan kept skiing every winter on the snowy slopes located 40km (25 miles) from his home, where Yaseen had been running a skiing equipment shop for 40 years.

Khan would make the tiring walk up the slopes along with the equipment, and would race downhill.

The journey up the slops was eased in 1998 when cable car services were started. But even then, there was no equipment to smoothen the snow and Khan would work on the slopes manually for hours. It became a skiing journey from scratch, reaching its peak when he became India’s sole representative at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.

Khan finished 45th in the Giant Slalom and was unable to complete the Slalom event, getting disqualified from the competition after a mistake on the way.

He said his journey to becoming a professional had been an uphill task due to a lack of funding, advanced infrastructure, professional coaching, and a deteriorating political situation in the region, which has seen frequent turmoil in the last two decades.

But despite all the obstacles, qualifying for the Winter Olympics was an achievement, the skier from a non-descript village of Hajibal had earned a spot in the region’s sports history.

Khan finished 45th in the Giant Slalom and was unable to complete the Slalom event, getting disqualified from the competition after a mistake on the way [File: Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters]

“I started skiing in 1994 in Gulmarg where my father introduced me to the sport as he has been a tour guide for decades and ran a ski equipment shop,” Khan told Al Jazeera.

He added that he continued training at home until 2003 when he made a debut in the professional championship at India’s junior level and then represented India, saying that he has represented India in more than 100 international events.

“During the national championships, I was mostly winning the race,” said Khan, before adding that his international journey started in 2005 when he represented India at the inaugural Asian Children’s National Championship in China.

Seeing his progress and the laurels he brought, his father became more focused on training.

“I was made to work hard and develop more skills,” he said.

In 2008, when Khan was finally able to train in Switzerland, he was amazed at the level of infrastructure, slopes and coaching.

“What was similar was the mountains and snow, it was the same as Kashmir. After training for two to three weeks, I decided to get trained there professionally as I did not have any international training before, and I set my eyes on the Olympics,” Khan said.

In 2011, Khan was more driven to the sport and won two gold medals at the South Asian Winter Games.

But his journey to the Olympics was not going to be an easy one.

“If I wanted to train abroad, there were financial problems. We didn’t have much tourism [in Kashmir] during those days, we couldn’t earn much to train me professionally in Europe,” he recalled.

“Over the years, I made more and more connections with people and some people from Delhi provided me some financial support. It wasn’t a full-scale support though.”

One of the major obstacles to achieving his dreams was the political turmoil in the region.

In the last 10 years, the region witnessed multiple civilian uprisings and was locked down for months, bringing life to a crippling halt. It also caused significant losses to the tourism sector which is a livelihood for thousands of people in the region, including Khan’s father.

In 2016, when rebel commander Burhan Wani was killed by Indian security forces, it triggered months of protests and as life came to a halt, the Khan family’s only source of income took a hit too.

“In the last decade, we have lost so much of tourism which is the only source of income for us. Those days were very difficult. The mental stress was immense There were demonstrations and people would hardly think of being a professional athlete.”

The tourism sector in Kashmir has been going through the worst crisis in recent years with many people losing their jobs and tour agents looking for alternate opportunities to earn a livelihood due to the unstable political situation.

The region was yet to recover from the previous setbacks when the coronavirus pandemic struck in 2020.

It is only this year, after the third wave of the pandemic started to decline, that domestic tourism has started picking up.

“In those years, it seemed nobody had goals. Everyone had given up and we couldn’t carry on,” said Khan, quickly adding that he also had a realisation that “if I give up, there wouldn’t be another chance”.

“I aimed to be at the Olympics. That was a dream. I wanted to represent India there. I wanted to show we also belong to winter sports, we have the mountains, we have the snow, and we have the beauty. I wanted to introduce Kashmir to the rest of the world.”

arif khan of kashmir
He had little hope of winning a medal but Khan’s expectation in Beijing was to ski down nicely and make it to the finish line [File: Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters]

Yaseen recalled the family’s struggles while being elated at his son’s progress.

“When I brought him here [Gulmarg], we did not have much income. There were few facilities. He struggled, but we remained consistent in making him learn. More than me, my friends are happy over his achievements,” Yaseen said.

“He missed two previous Olympics because of several reasons. Now that he’s done that, you want to go for more and perform better and win medals,” he added.

He had little hope of winning a medal but Khan’s expectation in Beijing was to ski down nicely and make it to the finish line.

“The condition was so terrible that if you tried hard to finish faster, there were chances of not finishing the race and it’s kind of one event that I tried to finish faster but due to some mistake, I was out at the race.

“To win a medal, you need to prepare for 10 years and have a massive budget. In a country like India, where winter sport is not so popular, you can hardly get any support and sponsorship or government funding.”

Khan now has his eyes set on the 2026 Olympics.

“There will be more chances of receiving support or time for training equipment and travel. This is also the best time to promote sport within the country and also within the Kashmir Valley.

“Kashmir is all about mountains and snow. It is our natural game,” he said, hoping that the sport will uplift the region’s battered economy.

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