The tiny hill village of Goiwara is abuzz with energy and enthusiasm. Local boy Arif Khan who has qualified for Winter Olympics 2022 to be held in Beijing in February has become a fresh source of thrill and inspiration for youngsters in the ski village. Now training in Austria, the 30-year-old had earlier turned up for the country in the World Championship on four occasions, and tasted success in many Alpine ski runs under the watch of the International Ski Federation (FIS) in Europe.
“I am training hard and will give my best," he told News 18 before taking a flight back to Austria from Dubai. Son of a travel agent who would put on skis for fun and occasionally to contest, Arif imbibed his father’s skills quite early in his life. “It is not an exaggeration. He put on the skis when he was literally holding a milk feeder in his hand," Shabir Ahmad Wani, his coach, told News 18. “He has worked very hard all along." Wani, an official with a winter sports body, has trained hundreds of children but he remembers Khan as “a boy with good skills and a quick learner".
“Because his father was in Gulmarg all the time, (Arif) he would sneak out, put on his skis and slope downhills. He would repeat it till he would get tired," Wani recalled. Living close to the ski destination of Gulmarg had its advantages and he utilised it the most.
Every year around December, and sometimes even before, Gulmarg, 52 km from Srinagar, receives liberal snowfall of four to 12 feet depending upon the altitude. Being in the hills where temperatures plummet to minus 15 degrees Celsius, the snow lasts till June in the upper reaches. Skiers from the world over are attracted to its landscape, climate and, importantly, the powder they ski on. “Renowned skiers consider Gulmarg powder as the best in the world. Both the sun-facing slopes and shady ones have their own advantages. The powder is dry and soft in this meadow and skiers are fond of that. Also, skiing is affordable here," noted the coach.
In the spring and summer, the meadow looks stunning and green but winter is the best pick as its vast plains and contours get draped under a huge mass of snow. The meadow runs from the plains to rise several hundred metres up to the Himalayas and perilously close to the Line of Control with Pakistan. Its altitude ranges from 8,000 feet — where the baby slopes, or Bobby slopes, named after a popular Bollywood film, are located — to contiguous hills that climb to 16,000 feet. Proficient ski lovers have the option of lugging up on snow scooters or Gondola cable cars to Kongdoori at 12,500 feet and further up to 14,500 feet at Affarwat. Over 8 to 12 feet deep snow, you will often find them sloping down in a zigzag fashion around snow-laced pines, picking up incredible speed, and then again climbing up like tortoises.
And those who have a liking for extreme sports choose heli-skiing. They are dropped off a cliff and then speed downhill, sometimes encountering avalanches, snow slides and wild animals. An avalanche rescue team with top-end gadgetry often processes alerts of skiers losing their way or chancing upon a wild animal, the magnificent snow leopard included, a major and rare draw in winters.
Arif Khan, Wani says, has often trained with such a set of foreign skiers and that may come handy, though the competition that he faces does not require acrobatics or extreme skills.
People who have trained with Khan say he has worked very hard with negligible help coming from his family and almost none from the government.
His co-trainees say Arif had a chance to compete in a race in Switzerland before the deadline. But he needed Rs 1.5 lakh to get there, and could not raise the money. Worse, neither any government help came nor any private sponsorship - for a little-known sport in the country. He could not go to Switzerland, and so he waited for four more years, they add.
Wani recalls Khan took the sport seriously when he was barely 11 or 12 and started to practice hard on the Gulmarg slopes. “He picked up skills looking at foreign skiers and some even with the highly skilled avalanche rescue teams," his friend told News18 near Tangmarg.
In the last championship he participated in, he 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.
Wani said Arif reached the qualifying stage after passing hundreds of FIS-conducted races across Europe and other regions. The FIS is headquartered in Switzerland and holds competitions in Alpine skiing, cross-country skiing, ski jumping, Nordic combined, freestyle skiing and snowboarding.
“It is a huge achievement to qualify. Only four players including two from the Army have qualified from Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh for the Winter Olympics but one has got a medal so far," he said.
Wani said skiing as a sport has been pursued in India in the last 50 years while the Europeans have been competing for more than the last 100 years. “We are a very young nation when it comes to skiing and winter games," he said.
At Wani’s home, his family is ecstatic about what he has achieved. Mohammad Yasin Khan, his father, said Arif’s hard work has paid off and he is hoping he gets a medal. Sister Rifat and brother Mehrajuddin said his family, friends and the entire Kashmir valley are praying he brings laurels for the country. “Since this news has come, the youngsters here are inspired a great deal," they said.
Jammu and Kashmir lieutenant governor Manoj Sinha last week congratulated Arif for his achievement and asked the J&K Sports Council to ensure he is provided with all the facilities.
“Congratulations to skier Arif Khan for qualifying for Beijing Winter Olympics2022. It is a proud moment for the whole country. @JKSportsCouncil to ensure Arif is provided with world-class training facilities by best-in-class coaches&support staff.I wish him all the best for games,” Sinha had tweeted.
Khan may still require government handholding but many say had it come at the right time, he might have progressed in the game. “The support to groom him should have come a decade back," said his friend.