As we complete the elaborate process of a general election, there is a lot to consider regarding the manner in which our country is run. There was an event, perhaps noted by only a few, that illustrated this in astonishingly clear terms just a few days before the polls.
The Pakistan Sports Board, which is directly run by the government, suddenly announced that it would need to cut down the contingent of athletes being sent to the Asian Games from 300 to 140. The contingent’s size had been announced months ago, and apart from the 300, 97 others had been asked to pay for themselves. Everyone in the sporting world was prepared for the Pakistani delegation, representing some 36 disciplines, to appear in Indonesia.
The PSB’s announcement – which came so late in the day that Pakistan would have incurred fines for dropping out of events, while also naturally creating an atmosphere of immense demoralisation among athletes, many of whom have been training at the Pakistan Sports Complex in Islamabad since May or even before that – left the sporting world in shock. Only a few others appeared to take notice in a country where all sports, apart from cricket, have essentially rotted as a result of neglect.
The sheer mismanagement of the affair is almost impossible to analyse. The PSB, set up in 1962, is mandated to develop and promote sports, and, we would logically assume, generate the money to achieve this. While there have been individual efforts which have brought Pakistan a few seconds of glory internationally, such as the gold medal attained by wrestler Muhammad Inam at the Commonwealth Games held in Gold Coast in April, but these occasions have been too few.
The sight of the Pakistani flag flying on the top pole behind the victory podium and the national anthem being played is very rarely seen, especially since field hockey, like other sports, has gradually deteriorated to a point where, according to those managing the game, there are barely 50 players of international standing to choose from. Pakistan won its last major field hockey medal at the Asian Games in 2014 behind archrival India. There has, in fact, been a drought of medals at the Olympics level since 1992 – a shameful affair for a country of 220 million people. Many nations, such as Kenya, Jamaica, Sri Lanka and a string of others, which have a population one-tenth the size of ours, perform far better.
It is easy to say that sports cannot be a priority in a country that has so many developmental needs. But this is a fallacy that has set us down the wrong track. Sports is important because it brings people together, and offers children and young people an opportunity to develop skill, team spirit and an understanding of others who come from different backgrounds or ethnic groups. The mix of ethnicity and class in many of Pakistan’s sports is refreshing to watch.
There are few other spheres in a strictly stratified class system where this happens. Beyond this, there is the question of offering healthier outlets for young people by giving them fields on which to run, kick a ball, push it with a stick or develop other skills. There is no doubt about the fact that vast talent exists in this country. It is sad that the talent has simply been squandered by lack of collective effort initiated at the government level.
Given the kind of chaos we see so often in our country, the sheer discipline that sports bring, what it teaches about sportsmanship and observing rules, is also relevant to us. This, in fact, ties in with the elections and the process of casting votes which should never become an unruly or disorderly affair.
Sadly, no one appears to have any interest in amending the situation. Prime minister after prime minister and government after government has simply ignored the decline. The individual who succeeds through his or her personal effort may be briefly glorified or handed out an award, but there is no willingness to build a structure that will nurture sportsmen from the lowest tiers up till the elite level.
Many nations have achieved this in different ways. Jamaica places enormous emphasis on school sports. In India, corporate entities have been mobilised to set up camps for talented individuals to be selected for various sports from all across the country. Some of the efforts have been innovative. Women from hill tribes who routinely lift heavy loads of wood have surfaced as first-class weightlifters at international events. It is initiatives such as this which helped India finish third, behind Australia and England, at the Commonwealth Games this year.
Moreover, Sri Lanka has promoted a variety of sports, including swimming, in some cases by setting up plastic pools in remote areas, to teach children how to swim, both as a sport and as a life skill. They then encourage the best swimmers to train overseas, offering scholarships and aid for this purpose. Even Bangladesh’s navy has periodically run talent hunt programmes to discover promising sportsmen and women.
There is no reason why Pakistan cannot do the same. Our political leaders need to recognise that sports is of huge importance in bringing nations together, creating pride and giving people the sense of dignity, self-respect and positive outlook that we today appear to have lost almost entirely. Merely raising political slogans is not enough.
It is regretful that major parties barely touched on the issue of reviving sports in their agendas or brought this up in speeches. An exception has been the independent candidate Jibran Nasir, who contested from NA-247 in Karachi. In a number of his speeches, he emphasised on how crucial it is for the youth to revive sports, especially in a city like Karachi, and thereby give to a people who appear lost some sense of purpose in life and something concrete to aim for.
The Street Child World Cup held in Brazil in 2016, in which Pakistani children won 10 medals, astonishing the world and excelling in football and athletics, gives us some indication of what we are capable of. Imagine the sense of unity that would be created if a Pakistani team made it to a football World Cup and reached the final of other major sporting events. As we saw in the case of field hockey, during the 1980s, and in cricket today, the nation will unite behind them, and this in itself is something we need more urgently than anything else.
The question that remains is of creating the will. Only a government truly committed to serving people and recognising that there are tens of thousands of boys and girls who have no access to sports in the country but have an abundance of talent can achieve this.
Where there is commitment, funds will be found, international help sought, coaching excellence created, opportunities offered and a huge network of sportsmen created, from which a large number of people will inevitably rise to the top, benefiting the nation and creating within it the drive for success that is needed. Perhaps the new government can make this a priority.
The writer is a freelance columnist and former newspaper editor.