The writer is a former member of the Foreign Service.
At the London Olympics which concluded about a week ago, athletes from 204 countries participated in 36 disciplines, ranging from traditional sports like running and jumping to such exotic ones as synchronised swimming and beach volleyball. A total of 894 medals in the three categories of gold, silver and bronze were handed out. The final medals table was led by such giants as the US and China, but it also included tiny countries like Jamaica (twelve medals, including four golds), Bahamas and Grenada (one gold each). Pakistan was not on the medals table. But we won distinction of another kind. Pakistan was the largest country-sixth in terms of population-not to have won any medal.
Not only that, Pakistan never even came close to winning a medal. Our athletes were placed last or last-but-one in the qualifying heats. In hockey we were helped by good luck, and took the seventh position.
There was nothing surprising in our dismal performance. No Pakistani athlete could meet the regular qualifying requirements for participation. They were given wildcard berths which are granted in order to include as many countries as possible in the games and could only have won a medal if their opponents had all been struck with lightning, for which statistically there was less than one in a billion chance.
Our bleak performance was nothing new. We have won only two individual medals in our history: freestyle wrestling in 1960 (Rome) and boxing in 1988 (Seoul). In the last five Olympics, we did not win a single medal.
Afghanistan, a country which has been at war of one kind or the other for more than three decades, got one bronze at London. Afghanistan had also won a bronze four years earlier at Beijing.
It is easy to put all the blame on the sportsmen, as some of our commentators have done. Other countries do it too. After Austria failed to win a medal, the country’s sports minister warned that the government would no longer support “Olympic tourists.” The Kenyan government is also unhappy at the poor showing of its team, which won a “paltry” 11 medals, including two golds, and has ordered an inquest on this “debacle.”
Performance at the Olympics, as in sports generally, depends not only on native talent and individual qualities of grit, hard work and self-discipline but also on the general standards of health and nutrition in the country, the existence of a sporting culture and infrastructure, training opportunities and good coaching. A good medals’ tally is seen as evidence of a healthy and vigorous society and a superior socio-economic system.
It is not surprising, therefore, that the competition for Olympic medals becomes an occasion for nationalist fervour. Hitler tried to use the Berlin Olympics (1936) to showcase the prowess of the “Aryan” race. During the Cold War, the Western and communist camps touted their successes at the Games in the propaganda war to advertise the superiority of their respective systems. Among other ills, their cutthroat no-holds-barred rivalry led to the widespread use of performance-enhancing drugs. Many athletes, especially women from the former communist countries, are still suffering the consequences.
Ahead of the London Olympics, Britain was accused of giving its citizenship to foreign-born athletes-dubbed “Plastic Brits”-to boost its medals tally. According to one British newspaper, roughly one-fifth of the British Olympic team was not British. The Games also saw some good old-fashioned name-calling between France and the UK. Early in the Games, when France was ahead of Britain in the medal table, French president Francois Hollande quipped that the British had rolled out the red carpet for French winners, notably in swimming. But after Britain overtook France to take the third spot, French commentators accused Britain of cheating in cycling and of stretching the rules in rowing. British prime minister David Cameron rejected these allegations, saying that the victory of the first Brit at the prestigious Tour de France cycle race last month had driven the French “mad.”
In a blog carried last week by the US Foreign Policy magazine, Will Inboden compared Olympic medal counts with more traditional metrics of national power, such as GDP and defence budgets, and suggested that perhaps the current permanent membership of the UN Security Council is not necessarily so obsolete, after all. The top four medal-winning countries at London, he wrote, also happened to be four permanent members of the Security Council: the US, China, Britain, and Russia. And the fifth permanent member, France, was not far behind at eighth in the medal rankings. Furthermore, the countries ranked fifth and sixth in the medal tables were Germany and Japan, both of which, he said, had for years been making “credible” claims for permanent membership.
Inboden listed India among countries which are ascendant as economic and/or military powers, but still punch below their weight at the Olympics. Before the Beijing Olympics, India’s total medal tally since independence was 12, including six in hockey. Pakistan won 10 in the same period, including eight in hockey. Since 2008, India has been doing much better than Pakistan. India put up its best performance ever at the London Games, winning six medals. That is twice the number it won at Beijing but was only about half the “dismal” tally of Kenya, a country whose population is one-thirtieth of India’s.
India evidently still has a very long way to go before becoming an Olympic power. The Indian sports minister Ajay Maken has now set a target of 25 medals in the 2020 Games and Indian-born US columnist Fareed Zakaria predicts that in 2040 India will be the top medal winner after the US.
The term “race to the bottom” is used figuratively to describe a competition between countries to dismantle or lower their regulatory social, labour and environmental standards in order to reduce the costs of production and thus improve the competitiveness of their exports. In Pakistan, we are quite literally engaged in a race to the bottom of the international league table of socio-economic indicators. As the London Olympics have shown, sports is one such field. We are also touching bottom in literacy, educational standards, health, environmental protection and tax-to-GDP ratio, to name just a few other areas. The only fields in which we excel are corruption-for which much of the credit goes to individuals in the highest places-income disparities and absence of the rule of law.
Countries as diverse as Kenya, Austria and India which performed poorly at London are seriously considering measures for the promotion of sports. But not Pakistan. Our government and politicians are blissfully unconcerned. Imran is the only one among them to have spoken about the importance of providing sports opportunities for the youth. But should he come into power, he will find that his job has been made extremely difficult by the 18th Amendment, under which sports and youth affairs have become a purely “provincial subject.” That is not so in Austria and India, which are also federal states like Pakistan, but have not had constitutional experts like Raza Rabbani.
In Pakistan, thanks to his legal “wizardry” and the machinations of political players like Zardari and Nawaz Sharif, the federal government is now prohibited from encouraging sports. That is bad enough. But far more serious is the constitutional prohibition against federal “interference” in several other areas which are of vital importance for socio-economic development. Because of this bar, the country can have no national policy on education, health, population, environment or culture. The negative consequences of this constitutional provision are already being felt. Unless this monumental folly is rectified quickly, the long-term effects, not only for us today but for future generations of Pakistanis, will be calamitous. It is to be hoped that there will be at least some among our politicians who will have the vision and the courage to stand up and speak the truth.