India’s first international skiing medalist aims for Winter Olympic

Indian skier Aanchal Thakur, who won a bronze at the Ejder 3200 Cup slalom in Turkey poses with her medal in New Delhi. (AFP)
Updated 19 January 2018
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India’s first international skiing medalist aims for Winter Olympic

NEW DELHI: -She has already defied the odds in a country fixated on cricket rather than the slopes to win India’s first international skiing medal — but Aanchal Thakur insists she is just getting started.
The 21-year-old dreams of following her older brother Himanshu to compete in the Winter Olympics, a feat so improbable only one Indian woman has ever done it.
She credits Himanshu with inspiring her to dedicate herself to what remains a highly niche sport, despite her family’s best efforts, in a country where cricketers are idolized and skiing is sidelined.
Aanchal made Indian sporting history when she won a bronze medal last week at the Ejder 3200 Cup slalom in Turkey, but did not amass enough points to qualify for next month’s Pyeongchang Games in South Korea.
But she is determined to make the cut for the 2022 edition in China.
Himanshu, 24, India’s top male skier, made his Olympic debut at the 2014 Sochi Games and races on Saturday in Iran as he bids to compete in Pyeongchang.
“Now he is so close to the Olympic Games. He was pushing me also. I will make sure that I will be there with him in 2022,” said Aanchal, who was India’s national ski champion in 2014 and 2017.
“There is no rivalry, I must say, because he is always helping me (with) technique, always supporting me, motivating me.”
Her success in Turkey promises to dramatically raise the profile of skiing in India.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi was quick to congratulate her after she clinched the historic medal, tweeting that the whole country was “ecstatic.”
Aanchal’s name went viral on social media, with many hailing her achievement as a leap forward for Indian sportswomen.
Skiing badly needs greater recognition to take off in India. Neha Ahuja, who competed in Turin in 2006, remains the only woman ever to have represented the vast country at a Winter Olympics.
“This medal will be a turning point for ski and winter sports in India. I can see a bright future (for) skiing in India,” Aanchal told AFP.
“Now I think the government will support us. There can be nothing bigger than getting praised by PM Modi ji. So I think that everybody is aware of skiing now.”

Ski-crazy family

Aanchal comes from a ski-crazy family in the northern Indian hill town of Manali and her father Roshan Thakur is secretary of the Winter Games Federation of India (WGFI).
But in a brutal reminder of the second-class status of skiing in India, WGFI is not even recognized by India’s sports ministry and must fend for itself in a sport that requires expensive equipment.
The sport also is also cramped by a relatively short season in India.
Aanchal started skiing at six and with her father’s encouragement made great strides nationally. But even to make it to international competitions was a huge achievement.
Funding trips to Europe for training has been difficult with the family forced to seek help from the International Ski Federation.
“Apart from my dad, we got some sponsors from the sports’ international body so we could train in Switzerland and in Austria for races,” Aanchal said.
Aanchal sometimes trains in the Solang Valley in the Himalayas but long struggled to gain enough daily runs to be competitive in international skiing. She only goes to India’s main ski centers of Auli and Gulmarg for national championships.
But she insists if she can climb to the summit, then others can follow.
“Cricket is not the only sport in India and I want to say that if you like skiing, please come over (to) Manali or Gulmarg or Auli,” said Aanchal.


Saudi Arabia hopeful ahead of opening Asian Games opening clash against Iran

Updated 14 August 2018
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Saudi Arabia hopeful ahead of opening Asian Games opening clash against Iran

  • Young Falcons hopeful of a semifinal spot.
  • Under-23 players keen on making a name for themselves in Indonesia.

JAKARTA: There is a widely held belief that to succeed in sport, you must start early.
Officials from the Saudi Arabia National Olympic Committee will be hoping it rings true this month as the Kingdom’s Under-23 football team prepares to prematurely kick-off its Asian Games campaign this afternoon in Jakarta, three days before the continent’s largest multi-sport competition officially begins.
Similar to the Olympics, the football tournament starts before the opening ceremony and finishes on the competition’s final day, Sept. 2. The fledgling Young Falcons face Iran today at the 28,000-capacity Wibawa Mukti Stadium in the Indonesian capital.
The Saudi NOC have brought a delegation of 169 athletes, including eight females, and will compete across 22 disciplines, including athletics, shooting, taekwondo and volleyball. The three-week Asian Games operate both as a continental precursor and, at times, a qualifying tournament for 2020 Olympics in Tokyo.
The Young Falcons made their football debut at the Asian Games in South Korea four years ago, reaching the quarterfinals in Incheon, before losing to Iraq. Their regional neighbors were inspired by legendary striker Younes Mahmoud, who had been included as one of Iraq’s three over-age players and scored twice in a 3-0 win.
Yet the impact of Mahmoud in Korea has not influenced the team’s selection. With the Saudi Pro League starting next week, coach Saad Al-Shehri has opted to forego athletes older than 23, instead selecting a squad consisting primarily of Al-Ahli development players and a smattering of Al-Hilal, Al-Nassr, Al-Ittihad and Al-Ettifaq-based youths.
“We haven’t brought any overage players because we are playing here as preparation for the U23 Asian Cup, which will offer qualification for Tokyo 2020,” said Faisal Almarashdi, a spokesman for the team.
“We have brought to Indonesia only players who are 21 or under as they will all be eligible for Tokyo. Many have already played at the Under-20 World Cup under coach Saad, so there was never any discussion to use the three allocated over-age slots.”
Abdullah Otayf is the model example of how Asian Games experience can help a young career. Four years ago, the deep-lying midfielder was part of the squad that traveled to Korea. This summer he was an integral part of the Green Falcons side that played at the World Cup in Russia. 
With national team coach Juan Antonio Pizzi following the competition from afar, there will be chances to catch the eye for the likes of striker Haroune Camara and midfielders Abdullah Yahya Magrshi and Ali Hassan Al-Asmari ahead of January’s Asian Cup. Both midfielders have already made their full debuts for Ahli and featured in the Jeddah club’s Champions League campaign last season, while Al-Qadisiyah’s Camara was included in Pizzi’s provisional World Cup squad before being cut from the final 23.
“These Asian Games are very important for the young players involved,” Almarashdi added.
“They are the future of the senior team so if they play well here and at the U23 Asian Cup then, we hope, they will go to Tokyo 2020. From then on the pathway to the senior team is already very clear.”  
Much like the seniors, the U23 side is both short and slight, with only two of the 10 midfielders and forwards standing above 5 foot 8 (172m). Today’s opponents Iran are not only taller and more physical, they also have, in Croatian coach Zlatko Kranjčar, a manager who knows West Asian football after short spells in Qatar and the UAE. In their most recent preparation match, Iran lost 3-2 to China. 
Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, beat the UAE last week in Malaysia following a pair of friendlies against local sides. Today’s match will kick-off at 4 p.m. local time, midday in Saudi Arabia.