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Arif Khan aims to put Indian winter sports on the map at the Beijing Olympics

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

When you think of India, you might think of heat or humidity before you would think of snow. But part of the Himalayan mountains are also in India, and that is where the subject of this next story is from. NPR's Lauren Frayer has this profile of an Indian skier heading to next month's Winter Olympics in Beijing.

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: One by one, giant slalom racers bounded out of the gates at the World Alpine Ski Championships last year in Italy.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEEPS)

FRAYER: It was mostly European competitors, except for a skier named Arif Khan with a logo on his arm that says India.

ARIF KHAN: It's funny because I've been to four World Championships, and every time I'm being asked, is there skiing in India? Like, guys, we're living in the Himalayas. It's the highest mountain range in the world. What do you expect?

FRAYER: Khan is from Indian-administered Kashmir. His father runs a ski shop there.

KHAN: I started skiing when I was 4, yeah.

FRAYER: But Kashmir is also a conflict zone, where Indian troops have fought separatists for decades. The region is not a winter sports destination like the Alps or the Rockies.

KHAN: This was always my dream. You know, we are a people from the mountains, and we should really be count as a winter sports destination.

FRAYER: Instead, Khan has had to travel abroad to compete and crowdfund his trips. India doesn't have an internationally recognized Winter Sports Federation. That's something Shiva Keshavan also ran up against. He's a former Olympic luge racer who, without a luge track in India, learned by racing his sled down icy Himalayan roads. There's video. Google it. It's incredible.

SHIVA KESHAVAN: We do not have much of a history in sport in India in general. The feeling is that sport is something that's elitist, that is something that's superfluous.

FRAYER: But Keshavan is working to change that. He's lobbying the Indian government to invest in all Olympic sports and fund athletes.

KESHAVAN: 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, but you really need the support to win a medal.

FRAYER: That's reflected in India's medal count. It's won less than half of the Olympic medals of Jamaica, for example, with about 3 million people, whereas India's population is nearly 1.4 billion. India has never won an Olympic medal in any winter sport. So when Khan qualified for the Olympics this fall, he suddenly became a national celebrity here. His beaming father has been on Indian TV...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Urdu).

FRAYER: ...Telling stories of his son's childhood on skis and showing off his trophies. The media has descended on their Kashmiri village, even asking questions about Khan's love life.

KHAN: (Laughter) This is kind of like talk of the town, you know. Actually, like, I had to decide whether to get married or to go to the Olympics.

FRAYER: Khan postponed his own wedding last fall to fly to Europe to compete. His fiancee was understanding, he says. This is his dream. And at the end of our interview, I asked Khan what it will be like to parade into that opening ceremony in Beijing shoulder to shoulder with all the other Indian athletes. But he corrected me.

KHAN: Chances are there will be only one athlete - so far, only me.

FRAYER: So far, it's only him. India is sending just one athlete to Beijing. Arif Khan will carry the Indian flag and his country's Olympic hopes into that stadium all by himself.

Lauren Frayer, NPR News, Mumbai. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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.