Kashmir is on a high after noted Alpine skier Arif Khan qualified for Winter Olympics to be held in Beijing
Hailing from Hajibal of the Tangmarg area, the 30-year-old has represented the country World Championship four times. Last time Arif had got 140 points from five slalom races for the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang. He was on track after good performances in Turkey, Bulgaria, Norway, and Sweden.
In a tête-à-tête with The Kashmir Monitor, Arif poured his heart out about his journey and a road ahead.
KM: It is a proud moment for Kashmir that you have qualified for Winter Olympics. How was the journey so far?
Arif: It has been good so far, though there was a lot of struggle involved. It will continue. So far, so good.
KM: We have heard that you had a very time reaching this position?
Arif: Definitely. Reaching the Olympics especially if you are from Kashmir, is hard. We did not have good training, infrastructure, and the kind of atmosphere needed for sports. This infrastructure is found in Europe and some Asian countries. I had to struggle hard so that I could also train in these countries. Finance was the biggest issue. First, you couldn’t get the required finance; second, you were not earning that much that you could fund your training. Even if work hard for the whole year, you were not able to save money.
KM: How did you manage then?
Arif: We are into business from the beginning. Earlier we had a ski shop. Later we upgraded it and started a tour operating company. A portion of our income was reserved for my training. I was using this money for races, and travel. After 2008, I started getting sponsors. My friends from Delhi and Mumbai used to support with small sponsorships. They used to bear 25 to 30 percent expenditure. I used to train in Indian resorts. At the same time, I had to visit Europe for training so that I could learn about the game and get acquainted with the atmosphere. My focus has always been to reach a bigger stage.
KM: You participated in many skiing events. Did it help?
Arif: Yes it helped. It gave me exposure. Particularly when you participate in racing events, it gives you a lot of exposure. It is a kind of stepping stone for bigger events.
KM: How much training do you have to undergo to reach Winter Olympics?
Arif: It takes almost 10 years of training to reach that level. If you get financial support, you will do it. Most importantly, skiing is a very expensive game. Normally, the annual budget is Rs 60 lakh. But if you want to train a notch up, the budget is Rs 1.10 crore. We tried our best to train hard.
KM: How do you manage finances?
Arif: Normally, I could manage Rs 20 to Rs 25 lakh which was not sufficient. So I was doing training in parts. If you are not able to train for the full year, you can do it in parts. Like, you could train for five to six months. That way you can adjust your finances. So I tailored my training plan according to my finances.
KM: You and your family might have been drained financially?
Arif: Yes definitely. But it was my dream to reach the top level and represent my country. It will inspire many to do something bigger in life.
KM: You have been quoted by several media groups that you had a hard time arranging funds. How did you and your family arrange money?
Arif: We are into the tourism business. There were many sensitive issues that affected the tourism sector. If tourism season was good, we could easily earn money. I and my father have been working together. We were saving a part of our income for my training. But there were some years when there was no tourism at all. During those days, we faced financial problems. It was with great difficulty that I used to travel and train. That phase also passed. I missed out on Winter Olympics in South Korea in 2018 because of finances. I was very close to making it to the tournament. The basic reason was that I had no finances. We could not earn much. This year, I got a 50 per cent backup by JSW this year.
KM: How did you train because you have a tough competition at hand in Winter Olympics?
Arif: Our training is very difficult. I wake up at 5 am. I go out to train when the temperature hovers around minus 10 to 20. It is grueling training. Normally when I am in Kashmir, I train in Gulmarg. I train on the Kongdoori slope. There is also a hill near our ski shop and I train there for slalom. We are still in the developing stage. The alps at the international level are different. You can’t get international exposure here. We miss this international exposure and therefore we have to go to Europe for advanced training. IN Europe, the weather is very harsh. This time, the temperature is minus 20 outside.
KM: When did you start training for Beijing Winter Olympics?
Arif: I started in 2019. I trained in Gulmarg in 2019 and 2020 because I could not travel due to COVID. I spent five months on Gulmarg slopes. Earlier in 2019, I traveled abroad for a few months. Late I came back. In 2020, I could not go because of the pandemic. Since February 2021, I am in Europe, training and participating in different races
KM: Training for such a big event is always hard. How did you train?
Arif: There is a simple procedure. International races are conducted everywhere. Whether in Europe or Asian countries. You need to participate in five races. There is a point system. You need to score up to 160 points in five races to qualify for the Olympics. This is the basic procedure. You get points in decreasing order not increasing. If you cross the finish line and achieve your time goal, you could qualify for the Olympics.
KM: You said you faced financial issues. Did government help you out?
Arif: Yes. This year, the government has come to my rescue which is a good thing. For the first time, the government is supporting athletes.
KM: How and when did you start the skiing journey?
Arif: We live in mountains. There is always snow in these areas. My father was associated with the tourism trade. He was in Gulmarg. He trained me for six years. When you slide down the slope, it is fun and you want to do it again and again. My journey started from there.
KM: You said your father coached you. Is he a skiing coaching?
Arif: My father was a ski instructor in Gulmarg. Later he started ski guiding. After that, he started a tour operating company. We deal in skiing equipment. We give ski gear on rentals in Gulmarg.
KM: Is there any other family member who is a skier?
Arif: My sisters were also doing skiing. They could not get exposure like me. My brother is also a good skier. He is a national snowboarding champion. He is training hard for next winter Olympics.
KM: So we have two Olympic champions in a family?
Arif: The second one is coming. My brother is 20 and he is training hard to qualify for the next Olympics.
KM: How has been training going? Are you hopeful of a medal?
Arif: Main competitors are from Europe. Like Switzerland, France, Italy, Germany, Austria, and many other countries. I want to train like them.
KM: How did your family react when you qualified for Winter Olympics?
Arif: It was very emotional. I was struggling for 15 years. It was a 15-year-old dream. When I finished my races, my followers spread the news. I did not do it. Our ski federation broke the news.
KM: How did your mom react?
Arif: I could not call her immediately because I was busy in races. When I called her she was very emotional. All my family members were very happy about this feat.