Booming India sets sights on ski success

(AFP PHOTO / ALEXANDER KLEIN)

(AFP PHOTO / ALEXANDER KLEIN)

Relaxnews

, Last Updated: 2:46 PM ET

Hindi may still be a rare language at the World Ski Championships but with one sixth of the world's population and mountains higher than the tallest peaks in the Alps, India is planning to rival traditional ski nations in the near future.

Among the Austrians, Swiss and French, a small contingent in orange, white and green ski outfits -- the colours of the national flag -- has been spotted all over Schladming over the last 10 days.

The start lists for the women and men's slalom and giant slalom events this week will also include four athletes with names like Arif Khan and Varsha Devi.

This is just a starting point for Roshan Lal Thakur, who hopes to turn India into a skiing powerhouse and boost his northern region's economy.

"It's my dream to develop skiing in India on a mass basis, not one or two," says the small and cheery head of India's winter games federation.

"By bringing one or two athletes (here), they can be role models to other children in schools or colleges, so that way we can motivate more and more people towards skiing.

"Also on the other side, it can boost our tourism in winter."

Compared to rich competing nations like host Austria or the United States, whose athletes reside in luxurious accommodation and are chauffeured to and from races, Thakur and his skiers reside in a modest hotel 20 minutes away from the course and take the local bus to training and back.

"We cannot think of a medal but participation, and to compete in races, is my goal and through this maybe they can participate in the next Olympics in Sochi," Thakur said.

India's winter games federation has 600 registered skiers and already sent athletes to the Winter Olympics in Vancouver and two world ski championships, but funding remains a major problem.

The team has no private sponsors and much of the money for trips to events like the world championships comes from the athletes' parents, with further funds provided by the national federation and the International Ski Federation (FIS).

Although India's image is mostly one of a hot country with spicy food and Bollywood movies, the northern regions of Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh and the resort of Auli in Uttarakhand are high in the Himalayas with snow for months on end in the winter.

Still, infrastructure is limited -- "they have lifts but a lot still needs to be done," says Thakur -- so India's skiers often train in Europe, including Austria.

This could soon change. India was close to hosting a FIS race this season, and might do so next year.

In 2011, it already welcomed the first South Asia Winter Games, with Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Nepal among the participants, and courses homologated by FIS.

A large ski resort is also being planned and with a few thousand Swiss francs of FIS money, the Indian federation has invited coaches from Italy and Japan to raise the level of its athletes.

"Those teams started a long time back, we are still in infant stages," Thakur acknowledges.

With backing from the government at last, India's ski chief is trying to build partnerships with European ski associations to promote athlete exchanges, and with ski manufacturers to secure much-needed sponsorship and expensive equipment.

There is still a long way to go before alpine skiing attains the same following as cricket -- the national sport of India -- but it is a goldmine waiting to be exploited, he says confidently.

Indeed, with India's economy booming and exposure to winter and adventure sports through mass media on the up, more and more people are coming to the mountains and trying out skis.

And this increase in winter tourism will be a boon for locals in the northern tip of the country, where opportunities are scarcer than in the cities.

For Thakur, who learnt to ski at age 12, attending the world championships with Indian skiers is already an achievement.

"It's a big change. For a long time I was just skiing with wooden, handmade skis and today we are skiing with world class people. My gold medal is already here."

And even if the timeframe is still unclear, India will soon become a ski nation, up there with the best, he said.

"It will take time but I'm sure one day it will happen."

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