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September 25, 2018

How to revive sports


September 25, 2018

Pakistan’s poor performance in the recent Asian Games once again highlights the dismal state of sports in the country. We stand largely limited to the single sport of cricket, which is not how it should be.

Cricket looks well placed to thrive in Pakistan for the foreseeable future and potentially even do much better if Prime Minister Imran Khan can implement his vision for a strong domestic structure. However, the bigger issue is the promotion of other sports in the country.

There are several things that need to be done for this purpose. First of all, Imran Khan’s vision for a domestic structure for cricket is also applicable to other sports with some modifications. To summarise, he has been calling for domestic tournaments to be held along regional lines in which corporations are invited as sponsors rather than allowed to field their own teams.

Secondly, he argues that we have too many teams at the first class level, which reduces the level of competition. He recommends limiting the number of teams to six so that the quality of domestic matches is closer to international cricket. On this, he cites the example of Australia and says that when he played Shield cricket, he felt as if he was playing test cricket. In contrast, the British county system has too many teams and is therefore less competitive. Below the top tier, there should be a pyramid system with more teams and leagues, going all the way to the grassroots level. Lastly, Imran believes that the cricket board should be run democratically through a constitution, and should be free of political interference from the government.

Most of these points make a lot of sense – with two possible reservations. First, while there should be a small number of teams, surely, having six instead of eight teams should still create a very competitive system. Second, the point about the need to make sports bodies totally independent can be debated. Two illustrative examples in this regard are the Pakistan Football Federation and the Pakistan Olympic Association, where the government is barred from interfering due to Fifa and IOC rules. The state of these two bodies and Pakistan’s performance in the sports under their control speaks for itself. And yet, even the elected government of the country is not allowed to act against the mafias that have held them hostage. While, of course, there should be some rules and framework that prevent the government from making arbitrary political appointments and interventions, but the idea of total non-interference without any checks is taking it too far.

In addition to the above ideas on the domestic structure, a few other measures are needed to promote sports at the grassroots level:

The government may want to invite sponsors for school and college-level tournaments. The sponsors do not necessarily have to be big companies and can even include local businesses in the area. The funds generated from them should be used for the development of sports at the school/college level.

Starting gradually, the government should appoint a sports coach at every major high school and college, if not every school, due to shortage of funds. This coach should be familiar with several sports, and should be expected to teach students basic playing techniques, as well as guide them on physical training and strength building, stretching and warm-up routines, and the right type of diet. This is the kind of coaching serious sporting nations provide to their youth even at the school level.

It should be mandatory for every school and college to provide adequate sports opportunities to their students, and this should also apply to private-sector institutions. Every school/college should also be expected to participate in local tournaments, with penalties for failure to meet this requirement.

It should be ensured that every student participates in at least one sport in intra-school competitions. Obviously, better players will emerge and can play more than one sport and eventually get selected for bigger competitions, but a minimum participation in one sport at the most basic level should be recognised as every child’s right.

The government must ensure that girls are not left out of this. Adequate provision of sports goods and playing facilities should be ensured for girl schools and colleges too. Women should also be ensured access to other sports facilities outside the education system.

Efforts should be made to promote a variety of sports, especially those that can be played without too much cost. An obvious choice would be football which can be played cheaply in any open area, which explains why some small countries with very limited resources are able to produce excellent footballers. Volleyball and badminton are some other names that do not require very costly infrastructure. Our traditional sports like kabaddi and wrestling should also be given due attention.

For hockey, the government will need to invest in a number of astroturfs all over the country. But there should also be a larger number of less expensive second-tier hockey facilities where youngsters can play a slightly less professional version of hockey on surfaces other than astroturfs, such as smooth grass or cement.

Unused physical spaces can be utilised for sports. For example, halls when not in use, or roof tops on school buildings could be used to play badminton, table tennis or some other sports, provided some railing is installed on the edge of the roof to ensure safety.

Apart from media coverage of sports at the national level, local radio stations should be used to provide coverage to competitions at the lower tiers. While doing so, the government needs to ensure that sports other than cricket are get neglected; women’s sports need to be especially encouraged.

In the bigger picture, it is important to recognise sports as an industry. In addition to entertainment, sports can also provide employment to a large number of people including players, coaches, umpires, ground staff, sports goods and clothing manufacturers, broadcasters and journalists, administrators, physical therapists and even sports psychologists.

If the above measures are taken, there is absolutely no reason why Pakistan, a country of more than 200 million people, cannot become a major force in sports and also provide employment to many of its citizens in the process.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @AqilSajjad

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