Pakistan sport in the crosshairs of deliberate ignorance
When Sadpara’s name started making the rounds on social media in the context of his deterring decision to scale K2, the world’s most dangerous mountain in extreme winter this year, he became an instant celebrity. So when the news of his disappearance in the snow-clad mountains broke, it was as if a national asset had gone missing.
As the army helicopters combed through the mountain in dense fog and impenetrable snow, most Pakistanis learned about Sadpara for the first time. A similar ignorance about another talent from Pakistan visited us when Arshad Nadeem won the fifth position in the javelin throw competition at the Japan Olympics. He stood out because he was the first athlete from Pakistan to qualify for the Olympics and the first to reach a track-and-field final. Like Sadpara, Nadeem had been training in oblivion until their participation at international platforms brought them into the spotlight.
The spotlight did not only bring these two giants to attention; it also threw light on the apathy of the government and media toward sports.
Many of us were upset to hear Nadeem’s story— his effort to participate in the Olympics had little to no footprint of the Pakistan Athletic Federation, a government’s sports body mandated to spot, develop and nurture talents. According to Nadeem, he did not even have the facility of a sports doctor. Injury is a reality in sports, and not having a specialized doctor around is tantamount to putting the athlete’s life in danger. As for the coach, practically, he had none. It was his father’s effort that had him succeed in flying colors not only in the Olympics but previously as well in the South Asian Games.
Sports federations and athletic associations should be run by people with experience in sports and not by politically affiliated personalities appointed for appeasement.
There was a time when Pakistan had an international standing in sports. We were champions at the world level in many fields. Our titles ranged from winning Rustam-i-Zaman in traditional wrestling to becoming champion in squash, lifting three world cups in hockey, and winning the world cup in cricket. As a result, we had an endless stream of sports heroes.
Things have gone terribly wrong with sports in Pakistan. Pakistan hockey could not qualify for the 2015 or 2020 Olympics.
The Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) also refused to recognize us because of internal bickering. In addition, a reliable source told me that Pakistan was once invited to participate in a mega sports event in Kyrgyzstan, but failed to turn up despite being qualified.
Pakistan’s dilapidated performance in sports is because of a lack of subsequent governments’ interest resulting in flayed infrastructure and squandering of financial resources. This collective failure eventually made finding talent and grooming them a rare feat. Why would a young man take up sports when he sees ex-Olympians driving rickshaws and leading miserable lives?
The time has arrived to focus on developing sports in Pakistan.
At the government front, efforts should begin at the grassroots level; therefore schools through regulatory pressure should be forced to prioritize sports as a subject.
Talented athletes should be given scholarships, and the government should appoint focal persons to implement federal and provincial sports policies. On the other side of the aisle, business houses need to step up efforts by making a targeted investment in sports-related activities at the community level. The startling and disappointing thing is that despite having a sportsman as prime minister, the country has no plan or policy to uplift sports, including cricket.
The role of media in promoting sports has been equally depressing, leaving most of us without knowing talents like Sadpara and Nadeem. Cricket is the only darling getting space on media. Sports reporting has suffered for lack of interest in indigenous games and in the reluctance to keep a watchful eye on the activities of sports federations and associations. All media effort is spent on political mandarins.
The stories of the misuse of sports funds and budgets, poor planning, and embezzlement either go unnoticed or find disproportionate coverage.
In an interview with a local channel, Fahmida Mirza, the Minister for Inter-Provincial Coordination Committee said that all the sports federations and associations thought themselves above accountability and had since become dead horses. However, she agreed that a complete overhaul of sports policies was required to reform and revive games in Pakistan.
Sports policies alone would be useless if not accompanied by a foolproof accountability system to apprehend the spoilers. Last but not least, the sports federations and athletic associations should be run by people with experience in sports and not by politically affiliated personalities appointed for appeasement.
*Durdana Najam is an oped writer based in Lahore. She writes on security and policy issues.