The Olympics and Us II

WATCHING the London Olympics 2012, hailed as a singular success, was an exhilarating experience, and for Pakistanis, who waited in vain for an opportunity to raise a shout for one of them, the spectacle offered much food for thought.

First, a few words about the 9bn extravaganza. The US regained the world’s No 1 spot that China had snatched from it in 2008 at the Beijing Olympics. This time the host country, Great Britain, collected a record haul of gold since 1904. But Britain has been steadily climbing up ‘from 36th position in 1996 to 10th in 2000 and 2004, fourth in 2008, and now the third.

That host countries generally improve their positions is known. Spain as the host in 1992 took fourth position and has never done that well since, falling to 21st rank in 2012. Australia came fourth as the host country in 2000; it dropped to 10th position in 2012. Greece too had its best performances since 1992 as the host in 2004. Only China can claim to have maintained aconsistent record ‘fourth in 1992 and 1996, third in 2000, second in 2004, first in 2008 (host) and second in 2012.

When a nation wins the bid to host the Games, state and society are both motivated to invest heavily not only in infrastructure but also in training sportsmen and sportswomen. The Olympics are now a play of big money. The Frenchman who led the movement for the revival of Olympics in 1896 might be turning in his grave at seeing the role of money and state power in the Games. Still, the Olympics continue to offer opportunities for sports lovers from small and poor countries to excel in competition with moneybags. Only the Muslim moneybags are more interested in buying English clubs or casinos in the US than in developing their people’s sports potential. Good to see that Jamaica has retained its short-distance crown (for men), Kazakhstan and Iran have risen in rank and Afghanistan has retained the bronze it won at Beijing. They have dared the rich machines.

In Pakistan’s case the poor showing at the Olympics cannot be attributed to a shortage of money alone. Our political system does not allow free competition in any sphere, sports included. Our economic system does not offer a majority the nutrition required to match the European athletes’ physical strength and stamina. And in our culture of gluttony eating and feeding are the highest forms of diversion, and people are ranked by the scale of their girth. Even policemen are required to push their tummies back only once in a while. And terrorism, sedentary habits and TV have destroyed whatever tradition of outdoor exercise and sports we had.

The only time Pakistan’s flag went up at an Olympics during 1992-2012 was at Barcelona (1992) when its hockey team won a bronze. Hockey is the only event in which Pakistan has ever had any hope of victory. All its triumphs came before 1996, including three gold medals (Rome 1960, Mexico 1968, and Los Angeles 1984). However, on their return from their London holiday the team stewards are happy that they did better than the Indian wielders of the curved stick, the ultimate measure of success or failure developed by the pehlwans in Pakistan’s sports chambers.

Sports is a matter of organisation too. Besides the factors mentioned that have inhibited the development of sports in Pakistan, the policy of entrusting leadership of sports bodies to political heavyweights, generals and air marshals has been disastrous.

Take the case of the Pakistan Hockey Federation. From 1948 till now it has been led by a professional in the real sense only twice ‘Akhtar Rasool (1997-1998) and Qasim Zia (since October 2008), thanks to their political parties’ clout. One wonders how Khan Abdul Qaiyum Khan or Mushtaq Ahmad Gurmani were chosen as presidents of the federation even if as slim and smart young men their names had figured in school/college hockey teams. The largest number of federation presidents have come from the air force, its serving or retired chiefs, including Nur Khan, but he was truly incomparable.

There was ample justification for assigning the lead role in sports to the defence services. The universities and colleges that had been one of the nurseries of athletic and sports talent started falling off the track soon after Independence. Other big employers ‘ports, railways, electricity corporations ‘had nobody like Brigadier Rodham, perhaps the greatest benefactor of Pakistan’s sports in the area of track and field events. Thanks largely to him Pakistan’s Abdul Khaliq became the fastest man in Asia. Other laurels were won for throwing hammer and javelin. The army has produced no second Rodham, though it still leads the table in national Olympics, now reduced to a ritual without spark or flavour.

The wrongs done over years will take a long time to be undone. Perhaps we need a 10-year plan for the promotion of sports as one of the key planks of social sector development.
The air force too has had its share of glory. Was it not a group of PAF officers stationed at Peshawar who pooled their resources to enable Hashim Khan to proceed to England and write the opening chapter in the history of Pakistan’s dominance in squash?

The PAF is still the lead organisation in this game but one wonders if it has done enough to groom a worthy successor to Hashim, or Roshan, or Qamar, or Jahangir, or even Jansher.

A radical restructuring of the sports authorities has certainly become overdue. It is time to bid the oldies in command a decent farewell, reorganise sports bodies in a manner the people can accept as democratic, and put them under the charge of young professionals. Finding them won’t be easy as we have neglected the need to train sports organisers. That should now be a priority. Any people who take sports seriously begin grooming talent at the school level. There was a time when a high school was considered incomplete without playgrounds. Now we have universities operating out of garages and there are educational institutions that do not even have space for a ping-pong table. The land mafias are gobbling up whatever green patches are left in major cities.

The wrongs done over years will take a long time to be undone. Perhaps we need a 10-year plan for the promotion of sports as one of the key planks of social sector development. Local government institutions may be made to join the larger employers ‘defence forces, ports, Wapda, railways ‘and educational institutions to meet the infrastructural needs of full-scale sports activity. There is no point in sending contingents to Olympics if there is little sport at the domestic level.

One might be asked whether it is proper to talk of sports at a time when death is free to stalk our streets and saunter across our open spaces, when terrorists outnumber our sports squads. Yes, because sports and healthy outdoor exercise could help the people to defy the terrorists and offer an efficient means to wean the youth off their suicidal pursuits.

By: I.A. Rehman

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