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Skier Arif Khan flying the flag for 1.4 billion Indians

February 14, 2022

During a giant slalom in which nearly half the competitors didn't finish, India's sole representative in Beijing made it to the bottom. He hopes his Olympic dream inspires others in his country to pursue winter sports.

Arif Khan skiing at the Winter Olympics
Arif Khan is aware his progress is being tracked by huge numbers of people back homeImage: Michael Kappeler/dpa/picture alliance

Skier Arif Khan, donning a uniform with the colors of the Indian flag, always knew he was attempting something that was bigger than himself.

So while racers in Sunday's men's giant slalom were spinning out left and right at Yanqing’s Ice River course, he knew he had to make it to the bottom for the millions of Indians watching.

Shiva Keshavan, who represented India in Luge at the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagono, told Khan to just "stay calm, ski normal, don't push hard and make it down so it inspires the people here as well as in the nation."

And that's exactly what Khan did. Despite soft snow, icy ruts and limited visibility, the 31-year-old skier was among the 46 out of 89 skiers who made it to the bottom, albeit finishing nearly 38 seconds behind gold medalist Marco Odermatt.

"I could ski how I normally ski better than I skied today," he said when DW asked him about his approach. "But today was all about representing the country and finishing the race."

How Arif Khan discovered skiing

Arif Khan was born in Gulmarg in the mountainous Indian state of Jummu and Kashmir. The region is known for getting a lot of snow, Kahn says, and attracts a lot of freeskiers.

His father still owns a ski shop there and encouraged him to get into skiing when he was four, making a little bunny hill for him near the shop.

In 2008, Khan moved to Switzerland to pursue his dream of representing India at a Winter Olympics. He trained with Swiss ski clubs as an international athlete and took part in local races.

"What helped me was using different ski resorts, different ski slopes, different conditions," he told DW before the Olympics. "That's one of the factors that really helped me."

He made his international debut at 16 in a junior FIS event in Yomase, Japan and has since gone on to compete in more than 130 international events. Last December, he became the first Indian athlete to win direct quotas for the Winter Olympics in two different disciplines, the slalom and the giant slalom.

Waking up at 5:00 is part of his daily routine so he can head to the mountains at 6:00 or 6:30 and ski until midday. He still trains in Gulmarg, where he's also trying to help the next generation of skiers achieve their Olympic dreams, but does most of his training in Europe.

"Gulmarg can provide a basic and intermediate training that can take you to the basic international events," he said. "But later you will require an infrastructure that's being used by the athletes to prepare for the higher events later."

Skiing for India

Personal ambition is only part of his motivation for participating in the Beijing Olympics — alongside improving ski infrastructure and funding back home, and making India a snow sports destination. This was why he pushed his wedding back to train and why getting to the bottom of the giant slalom course was so important to him.

Arif Khan holds the Indian flag at the opening ceremony to Beijing 2022
Arif Khan was India's flag bearer during the Games' opening ceremonyImage: David J. Phillip/AP/picture alliance

"It has been my dream for 15 years to represent India in the Olympics," Kahn said. "Seeing this dream come true means a lot."

Kahn is the 13th Indian and 10th alpine skier from the country to take part in a Winter Olympics. He nearly represented India at the Pyeongchang Olympics but ran out of funds while trying to qualify.

For years, his father has helped fund his career. But, according to Khan, he requires around €100,000 per year to finance his dream. This time around, 40% of his funding came from a company named JSW Sports, while he also received funding from the government in Jammu and Kashmir. He funded the rest himself, even working as a ski instructor. 

"There were times when I had to give up, but I restarted and worked on my dream," he said.

With the giant slalom behind him, Kahn is set to compete again in the men's slalom on Wednesday. He hopes his participation not only inspires the next generation of Indians to pursue skiing, but also introduces India as a skiing destination to the rest of the world.

"In India, we have a population of 1.4 billion people, and I'm a representative for that whole population," he said. "It really means a lot to me."

Edited by: Matt Pearson

India's sole Winter Olympian aims high