Ditching the country

March 10, 2024

Boxer Zohaib Rasheed’s disappearance in Italy ahead of the Olympic Qualifiers is a big blow to our sports

Ditching the country

Today my heart bleeds when I remember the episode of Pakistani boxer Zohaib Rasheed who ditched the country and vanished in Italy just before the start of the World Qualifying round for Paris Olympics in Busto Arsizio Arena located in the outskirts of Milan.

It was indeed very painful for me when I was going to break the story for The News International. As a journalist when you break a story you feel happy but this was an incident which did not make me happy when I was going to report it. I had also broken the story of swimmer Faizan Akbar who had vanished in Hungary just before the launch of the World Swimming Championship in Budapest in June 2022.

It is always painful when a country’s premier athlete takes such a step. I had a meeting with Zohaib on the sidelines of the national camp at the Railways Sports Complex, Lahore, and had been in contact with him during his two and a half months camp. He looked confident to qualify for the Olympics. He was in top shape and nobody could have expected that he would commit this crime. He also stole some pounds of a female boxer as he had opened their room after getting the key from the reception as his main aim was to get his passport from there. And he took away his passport, carrying a one-month Schengen visa.

I had interviewed Zohaib on February 29 when he was set to leave for Jinnah International Airport, Karachi, and I found him a bit different this time. He seemed more relaxed. When an athlete has to achieve a target like qualifying for the Olympics and when he enters the competition phase he is focussed and his feelings are different but I did not see that factor in his body language which also surprised me. But still I believed that he would do his best and the coach Arshad Hussain was also confident about him. I had discussed this issue with the coach Arshad Hussain and a senior official of Pakistan Boxing Federation (PBF) that they should be vigilant on the tour of Italy so that any mishap could not happen.

Fears were always there as two major boxers, Suleman Baloch and Nazirullah, had taken such a step during the 2022 Birmingham Commonwealth Games. Although practically it is not easy to prevent such happenings for the management if any athlete plans to vanish but such chances can be minimised if more officials accompany the touring party. A single coach cannot do anything. He will attend managers meeting and draws ceremony or will handle his boxers as fights of different boxers are on different days so it is always important that a professional manager accompanies the side. But we also have financial issues and we cannot afford sending more officials.

In less than two years four top players, three boxers and a swimmer, vanished. I also talked to Zohaib’s father and brother and they say that he had not discussed with them that he would take such a step. However, his father said that Zohaib was facing financial issues as he was also not getting his salary regularly.

But as a reporter I always doubt and cannot believe such statements.

Such things are usually pre-planned and it is now part of our sports culture. The authorities will need a proper plan to minimise such chances.

I don’t think the PBF will ever dare to send its team to Europe. So issues are manifold and it is the job of the authorities to look how they can tackle such issues.

Yes, in some departments decent salaries are given to the top athletes and it helps them live a respectable life but some departments don’t offer sufficient salary to the athletes and because of the high inflation they always think about seeking greener pastures in Europe.

So we should be ready for more such casualties in future.

Yes, there are so many fine athletes in our current crop who don’t think like this and are loyal. They are focussed on their targets and they are also respected highly.

The Paris Olympics are also just around the corner and sports authorities should plan for that in order to avoid any such mishap.

Financial issues are a big hurdle and such issues force athletes to vanish in Europe. We need to revisit our sports system. I think neither the state does justice with the country’s leading athletes in terms of financing them and nor do federations do anything for managing proper sponsors for the athletes. We often talk about branding of the athletes but we don’t take any practical steps to do that. If we don’t keep athletes financially secure they would always think about taking such a step.

It’s a new government now and it should impose a sports emergency in the country and launch projects relating to sports development which could enable the country to develop this sector which is the most important in the modern era. If we invest in the sports industry it will help us develop a healthy society and it will also bring a major cut in our medical expenses.


Ditching the country