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

Srinagar, Indian-administered Kashmir – Arif Khan had just learned how to walk when he had his first experience of skiing over the snowy slopes of Gulmarg, a picturesque meadow resort in northern Indian-administered Kashmir.

He was four and his father, Muhammad Yaseen, was his first tutor.. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

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

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

Khan would make the tiring walk up the slopes along with the equipment, and would race downhill.

The journey up the slops was eased in 1998 when cable car services were started. But even then, there was no equipment to smoothen the snow and Khan would work on the slopes manually for hours. It became a skiing journey from scratch, reaching its peak 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, getting disqualified from the competition after a mistake on the way.

He said his journey to becoming a professional had been an uphill task due to a lack of funding, advanced infrastructure, professional coaching, and a deteriorating political situation in the region, which has seen frequent turmoil in the last two decades.

But despite all the obstacles, qualifying for the Winter Olympics was an achievement, the skier from a non-descript village of Hajibal had earned a spot in the region’s sports history.

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

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