India’s alpine ski champion Arif Khan is on a mission. Aside from being the lone representative of his country at the opening of the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics on Friday, he wants to show the world that winter sports could be a “game changer” for his motherland.
Even though the Indian Himalayan Region spreads across 13 of India’s states, the South Asian country still has little to no winter sports culture, according to Fortune. But Khan, a 31-year-old athlete from the Indian-administered side of the Himalayan region Kashmir, hopes that his appearance at the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics could change all of that.
“Winter sports can be a game changer for India,” the skier said during a press conference. “If we utilize the Himalayas well, it can be used for both purposes, sports as well as economic development.”
Khan also added that India lacks the proper infrastructure to support professional athletes. The only infrastructure that is currently available can only support “basic and intermediate levels of skiing.”
In an interview, Khan also shared that the people he encounters are usually surprised to learn that skiing is a viable sport in India.
“It’s funny because I’ve been to four World Championships, and every time I’ve been asked, ‘Is there skiing in India?'” he said, NPR reported. “Guys, we’re living in the Himalayas! It’s the highest mountain range in the world. What do you expect?”
When he was 4 years old, Khan was introduced to skiing by his father, Mohammed Yaseen Khan, a ski resort tour operator who also runs a small skip shop. Given his family’s financial status, the athlete relied on crowdfunding to help him afford his training in India, Europe and North America.
Khan has won several awards throughout his career so far, including two gold medals in the slalom and giant slalom events during the 2011 South Asian Winter Games. Most recently, he took home gold for slalom after competing in the 2020 National Winter Games. The athlete qualified for the 2022 Beijing Winter Games after participating in a competition at Ski Dubai, an indoor ski arena inside a shopping mall in the United Arab Emirates, in November 2021.
“It was the first time they held an international competition, and I was invited,” Khan said. “Three of us actually ended up qualifying for the Olympics. And people were watching through a window from the mall!”
Khan’s father spoke with local reporters after his son’s qualifying win, saying, “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. I am sure he will make India proud.”
Khan was supposed to get married last December, but he postponed his wedding ceremony to focus on his training for the Olympics, The Indian Express reported.
The 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics marks India’s 11th appearance at the Winter Olympics. The last time the South Asian country sent a lone athlete to the Winter Games was in 2002 when Shiva Keshavan competed in Salt Lake City, Utah.