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At the Beijing Olympics, a Kashmiri skier will carry India's flag — all by himself

India's skier Arif Khan poses on the sidelines of a training session in Austria last month.
Kerstin Joensson
AFP via Getty Images
India's skier Arif Khan poses on the sidelines of a training session in Austria last month.

MUMBAI – Arif Khan is used to surprising people.

He recalls the looks on people's faces at last year's World Alpine Ski Championships in Italy. One by one, giant slalom racers bounded out of the gates atop a steep, snowy incline. They were mostly Europeans, with their home countries' flags sewn onto their spandex ski suits: Austria, France, Italy, Germany.

Then came Khan, with the name of his country emblazoned on his shoulder: India. Even the judges were surprised, he says.

"It's funny because I've been to four World Championships, and every time I've been asked, 'Is there skiing in India?'" Khan, 31, explains. "Guys, we're living in the Himalayas! It's the highest mountain range in the world. What do you expect?"

Khan is from the Indian-administered side of Kashmir, a Himalayan region that's split between India and Pakistan. He learned to ski when he was four at Gulmarg, an Indian government-run ski resort that boasts one of the highest ski lifts in the world. His father runs a ski shop there.

Now Khan hopes to surprise people again, in Beijing – where he's preparing to compete in his first-ever Olympic Games.

But India has never won an Olympic medal in any winter sport. And Khan is the only Indian athlete going.

To qualify for Beijing, India's lone Olympian had to crowd-fund his travel

Khan's native Kashmir is a conflict zone, where Hindu-majority India rules over a Muslim-majority population, and where troops have fought separatists for decades. In August 2019, the Indian government canceled the region's special constitutional status, flooded its streets with soldiers and police, cut off the internet and arrested thousands of locals.

"If something is going on that's disturbing at home, it's definitely on my mind. But I want to succeed so that I can also have an impact on Kashmiri youth, to inspire them toward their own goals," Khan told NPR in a phone interview in late December from Bosnia, where he was training. "This has always been my dream."

Despite Kashmir's mountainous location, it's not exactly a major international winter sports destination. So Khan has had to travel abroad to compete.

But India doesn't have an internationally-recognized winter sports federation to support athletes. Khan has had to crowd-fund his trips to Europe.

"Most of the European skiers get support from their governments, and they can travel in a van to the competitions. They're very well-funded. The sport is famous in their countries," Khan says. "But for me, traveling alone from India, it's really expensive."

That's something Shiva Keshavan also ran up against. He's a six-time Olympic luge racer from northern India. Without a luge track, he learned by racing his sled down icy Himalayan roads in his hometown of Manali.

"We do not have much of a history in sport in India in general. The feeling is that sport is something that is elitist, something that is superfluous," Keshavan tells NPR.

He and Khan are hoping to change that. They've have been lobbying the Indian government to invest more in all Olympic sports, and fund athletes.

"It's kind of a catch-22 situation for an athlete, when the government tells you, 'Go win a medal and then we're going to support you,'" Keshavan says. "But you really need the support to win a medal, right?"

That's reflected in India's Olympic medal count. It's won less than half of the medals of Jamaica, for example, a country with about 3 million people. By contrast, India's population is nearly 1.4 billion.

An Indian skier qualifies for the Olympics – at a shopping mall in Dubai

India's most successful Olympians have been field hockey players (a summer sport). It hasn't sent a downhill skier to the Olympics since 2014. So Khan surprised his sport and his country when he qualified for the Beijing Games this past November.

Khan became the first athlete from India to earn a quota place for the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics in the slalom event in alpine skiing.
Kerstin Joensson / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
Khan became the first athlete from India to earn a quota place for the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics in the slalom event in alpine skiing.

He also did so in a surprising place: A shopping mall in the desert. Khan's qualifying run in the giant slalom happened at a competition at Ski Dubai – an indoor, refrigerated ski arena that manufactures snow, located inside a shopping mall in the United Arab Emirates.

"It was the first time they held an international competition, and I was invited. Three of us actually ended up qualifying for the Olympics," he recalls. "And people were watching through a window from the mall!"

Back home in India, Khan has since become a national celebrity. His beaming father has been on national TV, talking about his son's childhood on skis, and showing off his collection of trophies.

"I am so happy and so is all of Kashmir! Because this is the first time someone from Kashmir has qualified [for the Olympics] in skiing," Mohammad Yaseen Khan told local media in November, just after his son qualified. "I am sure he will make India proud."

Indian media has descended on the family's Kashmiri village. Reporters are even asking questions about Khan's love life, after an Indian newspaper reported that he had postponed his own wedding.

"This is like the talk of the town!" Khan tells NPR, laughing. "Actually, I had to decide whether to get married, or to go to the Olympics."

Khan and his fiancée are still together. She was understanding, he says. The Olympics are his dream.

And on Feb. 4, that dream is set to come true: Khan will carry the Indian flag – and the Olympic hopes of nearly 1.4 billion Indians – into the opening ceremony in Beijing, all by himself.

NPR producer Sushmita Pathak contributed to this report.

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Lauren Frayer covers India for NPR News. In June 2018, she opened a new NPR bureau in India's biggest city, its financial center, and the heart of Bollywood—Mumbai.