The 2018 Winter Olympic Games are all set to take place on February 9 in Pyeongchang, South Korea and for the first time in 16 years, the Indian contingent looks likely to be without a participant in alpine skiing, with all the possible contenders likely to miss the qualification mark in the coming few days.
In 2006, Neha Ahuja and Hira Lal Thakur represented India at the Winter Olympics in Turin, with the former recording 42nd and 51st place finishes in the giant slalom and slalom events respectively.
At the 2010 Games, armyman Jamyang Namgial participated in the men's giant slalom while most recently in Sochi 2014, Himanshu Thakur took part in the same category - albeit as an Independent Olympic participant at the time.
Trained only for 7-8 days this time: Thakur
"The level of the competition in Sochi was something else," Thakur told Sportskeeda in an exclusive chat. "We started practicing in 2013 and trained for a good 7-8 months. It was around November or December that I sealed my spot for the 2014 Olympics," he recalls in a happy tone over the phone.
However, there is a marked difference when the conversation shifts to the subject of the Pyeongchang Games. "I've lost all hope, basically," he says, before adding, "This time around, training has been very less. We practiced only for 7-8 days before the main tournaments this time around and we received no help from any sponsors. Perhaps, it is the reason for our non-qualification. There is no Indian skier right now who could realistically make it to Korea."
Thakur, who was 20 years old when he zipped down the slopes in Sochi, first tried the sport at the young age of four and for him, it has been a fundamental part of his upbringing.
He hails from a family of skiers who have made the country proud. His father Roshan Lal Thakur, who is also the secretary of the Winter Games Federation of India, is a former national champion and at the 2006 Olympics, his cousin Hira Lal represented the country.
Most recently, it was his sister Aanchal who hit the headlines earlier this month after she became the first Indian to win a medal at an international skiing event when she won bronze at the Alpine Ejder 3200 Cup in Turkey.
However, for Thakur, the season has come to a disappointing end as he is facing a near impossible challenge to meet the qualification criteria for the Olympics. He has represented India at three Junior World Championships, three senior World Championships (2013, 2015 and 2017) and was also a part of the contingent at the Asian Winter Games last year.
Weather and visa woes add to problems
In his Olympic qualification bid, he has participated in races across Europe in Turkey, Germany, Iceland and Iran but due to the prevailing circumstances, he has been unable to repeat the feat from four years ago.
"The weather conditions have also not been very friendly this time around," said Thakur. "My flights were delayed a number of times due to the weather and some of the qualifying races were also been cancelled as a result."
The 24-year-old also missed a crucial day in Iran due to visa issues, which were resolved only with the intervention of the Sports Minister Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore and External Affairs Minister.
"I lost a complete day because of the visa problem. Here in Iran, the snow is less and the track is also quite bumpy. I have got scores of 145-150 but they are not good enough for qualification," said Thakur. He added, "I have races lined up in Slovakia as well after this (Iran) but they are organized by Ghana and they might get called off."
While there is little he could have done when it came to weather conditions and visa problems, Thakur feels that he could have done much better if he had received the necessary monetary support and infrastructural help.
"Forced to spend our own money," says Thakur
"Most of the time, we spend our own money to go to train and Europe," lamented Thakur. "In 2013, we had spent from our own pockets and this time around, we wished for more support but did not get it. I could have got the required points by November or December but there was no backing for us."
He even revealed that he had requested funds to go and compete in races in South America earlier this year, which would have helped increase his qualification chances. "I had already got the required points in two races in Turkey and asked for help to be able to contest in Chile, Argentina and even Europe. However, my pleas were not heard."
And what about the facilities at home, then? Thakur suggested that India has a long way to go when it comes to having the right infrastructure to nurture top-level skiers. "Our only FIS tournament is in Auli, Uttarakhand but it has been postponed," he said.
Thakur added, "In Manali where I train, there are hardly any facilities and no good slopes. We even have to walk uphill with our skis after every run for 400-500m!"
To make things worse, he is not too sure whether the situation will get any better even despite his sister creating history. "After her win, Aanchal spoke about the need for better slopes and getting foreign coaches to India. But I'm not too sure whether someone will listen to us," he said, signing off.