1 in 1.4 billion: India’s only Olympian wants to reverse his country’s woeful Winter Games record
When India is introduced at the opening ceremony of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing on Friday, a lone athlete will represent the country of 1.4 billion.
Arif Khan, a 31-year-old alpine skier from the war-torn province of Kashmir, will carry India’s flag and the hopes of a nation that has never won a medal at the Winter Games.
Khan, the first Indian athlete to ever qualify for two Olympic events, has a modest goal of finishing in the top 30 in the slalom and giant slalom, but his ambition stretches beyond his performance on the slopes. He wants to reverse India’s reputation as a potential winter sports powerhouse that has woefully under-delivered.
“Winter sports can be a game changer for India,” Khan said at a press conference. “If we utilize the Himalayas well, it can be used for both purposes, sports as well as economic development.”
India is home to the world’s tallest mountain range, the Himalayas, which passes through 13 Indian states, but the country lacks a winter sports culture. The people who live in India’s remote mountainous areas are mostly poor and consider sports like skiing and snowboarding a means of transporting gear for tourists—not for recreation or competition.
The country lacks winter sports infrastructure. It has few ski slopes that meet international standards, ski equipment retailers, or highly skilled coaches. Unlike the Board of Control for Cricket in India, estimated to be the world’s richest, the country does not have a prominent winter sports federation.
“The infrastructure that we have in India can only be used for basic and intermediate levels of skiing,” says Khan, who has participated in four world championships and won two gold medals at the South Asian Winter Games in India’s Uttarakhand state in 2011.
The scarcity of winter sports facilities means there are few opportunities to groom India’s enormous talent pool for Olympic-level competition, says Manisha Malhotra, head of sports excellence and scouting at JSW Sports, an offshoot of India’s largest steel firm, JSW, that trains young athletes and sponsors Khan.
“We have had skiers before, but to get results you need the infrastructure,” veteran sports journalist G. Rajaraman tells Fortune. “The dilemma is who is going to spend money when you know Indian athletes are not that competitive.”
Khan is arguably India’s best Winter Olympics hope in years.
Khan’s father, Mohammed Yaseen Khan, runs a small ski shop and tour operator in Gulmarg, a snowcapped town in Kashmir. He introduced his son to skiing at age 4. With only modest family income, Khan has had to crowdfund his training in India, Europe, and North America. Khan missed South Korea’s Winter Olympics in 2018 because his fundraising efforts fell short. This year, JSW Sports’ sponsorship has helped Khan pay for his trip to Beijing.
Khan has also received a grant from India’s Target Olympic Podium Scheme (TOPS), a program the government launched in 2014 to bolster the nation’s poor record of medaling at the Olympics. Between 2016 and 2021, India poured $156 million into TOPS and a sister program called the Annual Calendar for Training and Competition (ACTC), which funds national coaching camps, among other initiatives.
The programs’ budget is minuscule compared with that of other countries—Australia, by comparison, spends $113 million annually to train its future Olympians—but Rajaraman says the program has been fairly successful since it supported javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra and weightlifter Mirabai Chanu, who won gold and silver at the 2020 Tokyo Games, respectively.
The federal government needs more support from state governments, which are better positioned to identify and develop talent on a grass-roots level, Rajaraman argues. “You will then see a sea change,” he says.
India has participated in several winter Olympic Games since 1964 and every Summer Games since 1920. But to date, it’s won only 35 medals, all in the summer.
From 1928 to 1980, India dominated men’s field hockey, winning 11 medals, including eight gold medals at 12 Olympics. But the team faltered in the late 1970s as the sport transitioned from a grass playing surface to Astroturf.
At the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, India had its best showing since its Olympic debut in 1900, winning seven medals. India even showed a spark of its former field hockey prowess. The men’s team won bronze, breaking its 41-year medal drought.
To contend at the Winter Games, India needs to develop at least five world-class mountain slopes and recruit experienced coaches from Europe, Khan said.
“To be honest, if you want to be a medal contender, you require at least 10 years to train and prepare, [and sufficient] budget and funding,” says Khan.
Even if Khan doesn’t land on a podium in Beijing, he hopes to inspire the next generation of Indian skiers who can improve on his performance.
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