Five races stood between Arif Khan and a shot at the Olympics. It was January 2018. The skier from Gulmarg had been zipping down slopes across the world and racking up the points for his dream run. Turkey, Bulgaria, Norway, Sweden. Four down, one to go. Final stop: Iran. Then, bad luck and bad weather struck—the race was cancelled. His only option was to fly to Switzerland to compete at another event before the Olympic qualification deadline lapsed. But Arif Khan had run out of funds. He needed Rs1.5 lakh to make it to Switzerland. Indebted to family and friends who had chipped in to get him this far, Khan didn’t have the heart to ask for more. And that’s where his campaign ended. India would send two athletes to the Winter Olympics in South Korea that year. Neither would match up to the better-prepared racers from around the world.
It’s been three years since, but there is a sense of deja vu. Again, Khan prepares for a shot at the Olympics. Again, Khan must finish a slate of races between now and January next year. Again, Khan hopes to win a medal for India. Again, Khan needs funds.
Over the next three months, Khan will need upwards of CHF60,000 (approx Rs50 lakh) in two tranches to cover for his preparation. It may seem like a lot at glance. But that’s what a top bowler would be paid to send down a couple of overs in an IPL game. And it’s less than half of what a star cricketer earns for an Instagram post. Most of this expense will be towards his kit and training.
When he is not competing, Khan spends his time skilling up on the slopes in Europe, living the classic underdog trope. Where other teams move around in chartered transport, Khan takes trains and buses. He lugs his own kit—all 75kg of it—stays at the most basic accommodation and leads a largely monastic life on tour. These funds still won’t give him access to the very top tier of coaching and the world’s best facilities. But it will get him a chance, and he’ll take it.
Skiing is an expensive sport, especially in India, where you get barely four months of good snow. And just good snow is not enough—the slopes have to be groomed every day for them to be fit for skiing. This usually requires expensive equipment, which is partly why except Gulmarg and Auli in Uttarakhand, India has no other world-class ski resorts. Which is why very few Indians actually take up skiing. The chain of circumstances eventually means that wintersports remain woefully underfunded in India. The Ski and Snowboard India Federation has been trying to raise funds for Khan, but hasn’t had much luck through the lockdown.
Khan is quick to add that he has benefited from the benevolence of other teams and their coaches, who may let him train with them for a couple of weeks every season. But Khan covers his costs mostly by working harder and longer. He’s forked out an arrangement where he gets slightly discounted rates from his coaches. In exchange, he doubles up as their assistant while they train hobby skiers and other budding athletes, some of whom may one day end up competing against him.
Khan races in two categories: the slalom and giant slalom. Both involve skiing downhill, criss-crossing through pole gates at speeds nearing 90km/hr. It’s a physically and mentally exacting sport. But it’s the only thing he knows.
Dreams of a Gulmarg boy
Arif Khan has been skiing since the age of four. His father runs a tour company cum ski shop in Gulmarg. The business earns around Rs10 lakh a year—enough to support the family of six, but nowhere close to funding Khan’s Olympic dreams. The events of the past years have certainly not helped the cause. “The conflict in Kashmir took a huge toll on tourism and our business took a hit,” he says. “At various points, my family wanted me to focus on something more stable—like a government job.”
But Khan has stuck it through. He has represented India in 105 international events over the past 16 years. He has 13 medals at the national level, and two golds at the international stage. This month, he is off to Cortina, Italy for a shot at the World Ski Championship. But the boy from Gulmarg has his eyes on the prize in Beijing. Khan hopes that exactly a year from now, in February 2022, he will unfurl the tricolour in China. “All my life, I have trained for that moment where I hold the Indian flag up for the world to see.” Khan feels he has the skills. What he needs is funds.