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Saturday, December 10, 2022

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

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

Srinagar, Indian Administered Kashmir Arif Khan had just learned to walk when he had his first skiing experience on the snowy slopes of Gulmarg, a picturesque grassland in north Indian-administered Kashmir.

He was four years old and his father Muhammad Yasin was his first teacher.

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

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

Mines would run along the weedy slopes with equipment, and run downhill.

When cable car services were introduced in 1998, traveling down the slopes became easier. But even then, there was no equipment to smooth the snow and the mines worked for hours on the slopes. It became a skiing trip from scratch, reaching its zenith 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, being disqualified from the competition after a mistake along the way.

He said that his journey to become a professional has been an uphill task due to paucity of funds, advanced infrastructure, professional coaching and deteriorating political situation in the region which has seen continuous upheaval in the last two decades.

But despite all odds, qualifying for the Winter Olympics was a feat, with skiers from an un-described village in Hajibal earning a place in the region’s sporting history.

Arif Khan Of Kashmir
Khan finished 45th in the Giant Slalom and was unable to complete the slalom event, being disqualified from the competition after a mistake along the way. [File: Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters]

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

He said that he continued to train at home until 2003 when he made his debut at India’s junior level professional championships and then went on to represent India, adding that he has represented India in over 100 international events.

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

Seeing his progress and the praise he brought, his father began to focus more on training.

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

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

“The mountains and the snow that were similar were the same as Kashmir. After training for two to three weeks, I decided to train professionally there as I had not had any international training before, and I have my eyes set on the Olympics,” Khan said.

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

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

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

“Over the years, I built more and more relationships with people and some people from Delhi provided me with some financial support. However it was not a full-scale support.”

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

Over the past 10 years, the region has witnessed several civil uprisings and has been closed for months, disrupting normal life. It also caused significant damage to the tourism sector, which is the livelihood of thousands of people in the area, including Khan’s father.

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

“In the past decade, we have lost a lot of tourism which is our only source of income. Those days were very difficult. There was a lot of mental stress there were performances and people would hardly think of being a professional athlete. ,

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

The sector was yet to recover from the previous setback when the coronavirus pandemic struck in 2020.

This year itself, after the third wave of the pandemic subsided, domestic tourism has started to pick up pace.

“In those years, it seemed like no one had goals. Everyone had given up and we couldn’t move on,” Khan said, quickly realizing that “if I give up” So there won’t be a second chance.

“My goal was to be in the Olympics. That was a dream. I wanted to represent India there. I wanted to show that we also belong to winter sports, we have mountains, we have snow, and we have 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 hopes of getting down well to the finish line in Beijing [File: Wolfgang Rattay/Reuters]

Yasin recalled the struggles of the family while expressing happiness over his son’s progress.

“When I brought her here [Gulmarg]We didn’t have much income. There were few facilities. He struggled, but we continued to learn from him. Yasin said, “More than me, my friends are happy with his achievements.

“He missed the last two Olympics due to various reasons. Now that he has done that, you want to do more and do better and win medals.”

He had little hope of winning a medal but Khan’s hope was of getting down well to the finish line in Beijing.

“The conditions were so dire that if you tried to finish fast, the race was likely not over and this is the kind of incident that I tried to finish fast but due to some mistake, I was out of the race. Done.

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

Khan is now eyeing the 2026 Olympics.

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

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

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