Skier Arif Khan, India’s only athlete at Beijing Games, faced uphill battles with worldly approachFebruary 4, 2022
Farhat Naik, best friends with India’s only Winter Games Olympian competing in Beijing Arif Khan, recalls his former classmate once rising in class to correct the pronunciation of ‘asthma’ – as enunciated by their elderly English teacher, Abdul Ghani. “Arif had just returned from a training stint in the USA. He confidently stood up and told Ghani Sir, that it’s ‘as-muh’ not ‘astha-maa’. Imagine this was happening in a government school at Chandi Pora village,” Farhat chuckles, recalling a classmate who always stood out for his polished manners and obsession with precision. To his credit, the wise old teacher encouraged the correction, making the whole class repeat it. Though classmates in higher secondary often ribbed him for his “Amrican accent”, asking him to read out paras from textbooks.
Arif might’ve secured a belated qualification for the Olympics in Alpine skiing slalom and giant slalom at age 31, but the J&K skier was always primed for the big league, travelling extensively to pursue his competitive passion. Funded by his father who ran a ski equipment rental shop, and self-taught since age 5 travelling to Gulmarg, Arif nailed his qualifying spot at Dubai last year.
The skier had followed in the ridge-marks of 80s zigzaggers Shabbir Wani and Gul Mustafa. But it was the lonely struggle of his skiing-lover father that helped Arif compete in the US, Canada and Europe, when the March 15 deadline hovered, and the snow conditions got too slushy to continue slaloming down Indian slopes. When his Class 12 exams clashed with a meet in Iran, Arif’s father permitted him to drop school, and choose sport.
Arif had missed the Pyeongchang Games after falling short of one race in Europe four years ago. “He was bitterly disappointed. But he didn’t let that demotivate him. He went and trained with double drive the next winter,” Farhat recalls. Private companies the family approached for sponsorship seldom knew what slalom or skiing implied. “They would say, ‘We’ll see, but we don’t even know the rules’ and hand over Rs 10,000 or something,” Farhat adds.
Arif started travelling alone post sub-juniors to cut down costs, lugging his 22kg equipment. “Equipment can run into 10-12 lakhs, and has to be recognised by the international federation. Sometimes specifications of the skis, padding or helmets changed every 2-3 years running into 600 Euros. Just socks could cost Rs 5,000, a helmet 2.5 lakh and shoes 50-60 thousand. It was only his father who would keep arranging funds. Last year Mr Jindal was here for skiing, so Arif finally got support,” Farhat says.
The “Englishman ways” — dressed in sharp suits and carrying an umbrella — Farhat recalls amused, came from a strange recurrence when Arif travelled. “BBC, NYT would chase him as the only Indian competing. But our press didn’t know about him,” he says. The maximum help till 2018 came from family friends who hosted him around the New Zealand snow peaks of the Southern Hemisphere winters.
Like Harry Potter’s Firebolt, Arif coveted an upgrade from Atomics to the fancier Rossignol. “Never saw him so happy when he managed to get that. But he really got emotional in Dubai after qualifying, and broke down on the phone when he qualified to represent India,” Farhat recalls.
It wasn’t a chance qualification either. Farhat remembers Arif hitting the high icy Gulmarg slopes alone at 5.30 a.m, as sunrise signalled melting of the snow, not conducive to training. “Then whole day he trained for physical fitness. He is obsessed with keeping calories in check. Imagine, I know him for years and have seen him have the whole of Wazwan only twice in my life, skipping it at my sister’s wedding too. Him coming home for breakfast would mean not chai and girda (kashmiri roti) but half-boiled egg. No oil or spice,” he recalls.
Just past his teens, Farhat remembers Arif once wondering sorrowfully why the naturally excellent slope at Gulmarg couldn’t be simply cleared of boulders and levelled, so it could be certified by the international body. But he would start channelling all the frustration into getting fitter. “He loves Virat Kohli, and took his inspiration to stay fit. At village cricket games, Arif is an excellent wicket-keeper. Besides cricket, he also loves cycling. Another angrez habit he cultivated was playing golf. He had a full set of clubs.”
An introvert who is deeply religious, Farhat says Arif has been so single-minded about representing India at the Olympics, that he never made time for friends. “Bas, girlfriend nahi banaayi usne (he never had time for a girlfriend),” he clucks. Scheduled to marry the daughter of their next-door neighbours last December in an arranged match, Arif postponed wedding plans when the Beijing qualification happened. “Both families will cheer for him now,” Farhat says, as will the rest of the country