Sunday September 24, 2023

Oh, Iftikhar!

September 10, 2020

Worried about the potential of infighting on religious, sectarian, provincial or ethnic lines, and while laying down the principle of “unity, faith, discipline”, the concept of ‘unity’ was emphasized foremost by Quaid-e-Azam Muhammad Ali Jinnah. For the Quaid, division was not an option. It was in Zia’s time that history was distorted and the motto changed to ‘faith’ first and ‘unity’ later.

Since then foreign powers and opportunists tried to fan discord using militancy and violence. The lowest ebb was when terrorism wounded and killed thousands. It was then that the realization dawned upon us that when terrorists attack schools or bomb bazaars, they do not care whether those killed are Muslims, Christians, Sunni, Shia, Punjabi or Baloch.

This is when together we successfully launched the ‘war against terror’. The next step is how to tackle extremism and foster harmony and tolerance. Widespread education has been rightly suggested as a recipe. But there is another equally important, and unfortunately most ignored, common thread which binds people in national cohesion and overcomes division – sports.

Pakistanis are undoubtedly passionate about their games and unity is most obvious when Pakistan plays cricket. These feelings have to be harnessed, strengthened and converted into positive energy and a positive national psyche.

In ancient Greece, the Olympics were used to glorify gods and warriors. Today, sports serve as a podium for bolstering a nation’s image and, being inseparable from nationalism, is used to promote patriotism and pride in one’s country, sometimes even in a race. Hitler wanted to use the 1936 games as propaganda to prove the genetic superiority of the ‘Aryans’. Instead, the medal sweep by US track star Jesse Owens – a black man – destroyed the Nazi agenda for global disruption. The black movement owes much to Mohammad Ali’s dominance of the boxing world.

Sports was used in South Africa both for dividing society during the apartheid years, and later to unite. China uses sports to show its economic power. Sports today is used to achieve both a country’s development goals and even build bridges of friendship between nations (such as Pak-India cricket diplomacy).

The question is: have we utilized the full potential of our sports?

There was a time when Pakistan had a mark in international sports. Pakistanis were world champions in many fields, starting from having the title of ‘Rustam-e-Zaman’ in wrestling to being world champions in squash, from being undisputed masters in hockey to winning the World Cup in cricket. We also had an unending stream of heroes. Such sportspeople are ambassadors.

Some of you may remember Pakistan’s hockey team with greats like the flying horse Samiullah or unstoppable Hassan Sardar and Shenaz Sheikh. We had nothing but pride in being Pakistanis when time and again our hockey heroes brought laurels to the country. We would cease to be Sindhi or Pakhtun, Deobandi or Barelvi, and only watch joyfully as the green shirts would dribble the white ball. Pakistan Zindabad would flow uncontrollably as if winning a war when Pakistan scored a goal against India. Winning titles was taken for granted and defeat unacceptable.

A few days ago, my son showed me a video of a parody sung by famous comedian Khalid Abbas Dar at the PTV awards, wearing the Pakistan hockey uniform, lamenting how one Iftikhar, a forward, missed attempts at scoring a goal, resulting in Pakistan’s elimination. The anguish with which Dar called out “Iftikhar O Iftikhar” and the applause which followed is an example that we were united even in defeat in at least condemning poor Iftikhar! The clip reminded me the importance of being good in not one but many sports.

But that is the past. Things have gone terribly wrong with Pakistani sports and the main reasons for that are lack of state interest and little support from the business community and the education system – leading to lack of infrastructure and finance. In these circumstances, finding and grooming talent is difficult. Why would the young take up a sport when they see an ex-Olympian driving a rickshaw and living a miserable life.

Like many things, sports in Pakistan has also been a victim of infighting. FIFA even refused to recognize us because of all the internal bickering. However, we can still rise from the ashes.

We have exotic sports – polo in Chitral or tent pegging in Punjab. We have unique sports – such as Kabaddi that can be used to promote inter-country relationships. Unfortunately, we have not promoted this idea. A high official of Kyrgyzstan told me that Pakistan was invited to participate in a mega event of nomad games indigenous to Central Asia but even though no costs were involved, Pakistan failed to participate due to lack of interest.

It is time for Pakistan to give due attention to sports. It is rightly said that the process, from talent hunt to training and launching, must start at the grassroots levels. Therefore, we have to regulate schools and force them to prioritize sports as a discipline while the government needs to build playing fields and provide scholarships to talented athletes. Business houses too need to step in. Focal persons should be appointed to implement federal and provincial sports policies.

Much more can be done. All that is needed is will. The good thing is that PM Imran Khan was himself a sport hero and has decided to support hockey. The army chief, reportedly an avid sports fan, has also pledged hockey’s revival.

Experts say we are losing average height due to stress. What could be a better way to ‘feel good’ and stand tall by resurrecting our national games?

The writer is a Supreme Court advocate, former federal minister for law and former president of the SCBA.