Once upon a time sport was perhaps the only bearer of good news in Pakistan. Starting from the early years when the likes of squash legend Hashim Khan, the hockey team and the cricketers gave the country an identity at the international level to the Olympic conquests, World Cup-winning triumphs in hockey, cricket, squash and event snooker, Pakistan almost always punched above its weights in the field of sport.
But the last two decades have been a different story altogether. There have been successes like the 2009 World Twenty20 title but such victories have been few and far between. Over the years, not one, not two but almost all sports have experienced a sharp slump in our country. It goes beyond misfortune and carelessness and instead appears to be a trend.
When I began my career as a sports journalist as a 17-year-old, Pakistan sport was at its peak. I had the privilege to write about many of the high points of our sports like the 1992 ICC World Cup victory, the 1994 hockey World Cup triumph, the many international wins achieved by the legendary Jahangir Khan and Jansher Khan and even about the victory of Mohammad Yousuf who came out of nowhere to win the world snooker title. But it seems that all of a sudden, Pakistan’s well of talent has dried up. Or has it?
There could be a thousand different reasons why Pakistan fell from being a powerhouse in sports like hockey and squash to the point of becoming an also-ran in these games. Personally, I have chalked out a dozen major reasons behind the decline in the standard of our sports and why it continues unabated.
We took success for granted
In the beginning it seems that sporting success for Pakistan was heaven-sent. A country with little or no sporting infra-structure quickly rose as a force to be reckoned with in a variety of sports and that too at the world level. Almost all of the top national sportsmen starting with Hashim right up to Jansher were, more or less, self-made. Their success made us over-confident to the point that we thought it was our birthright to excel at the world level. That is one of the reasons why we failed to develop a single world-class sports academy despite the fact that Pakistan considers itself to be a sports-mad nation.
Lack of planning
Planning and too long-term planning is something that doesn’t exist in Pakistan’s dictionary. When it comes to our sports bosses, planning will more often than not begin with a physical training camp and will end with it. Across the spectrum of Pakistan sports, you will see that things are done almost on a day to day basis. We return empty-handed from a major event like the Olympics and then wait for three-and-a-half years before waking up from our slumber and start putting together a contingent which is heavy on officials that will represent the country in the next Games. Who cares about winning a medal! After all we haven’t won any such thing since claiming a hockey bronze way back in the 1992 Games in Barcelona.
Irregular support from the government
Of all the people, it was the biggest villain in Pakistan’s history who realized the true potential of sport and exploited it to his advantage. General Zia was a military dictator who needed good news to keep the public happy. He was lucky to have ruled during what was a golden period for Pakistan sports but in many ways he helped fuel it. He pumped in substantial funds into sports and rewarded sportsmen and women, turning them into national heroes. Unfortunately, successive democratic governments with the likes of Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif at helm failed to emulate the dictator when it came to patronising sports. To be honest, they did try but it wasn’t enough. What we see today are the consequences of an irregular support from the government for Pakistan sports.
Failure to systematically improve infrastructure
Over the years, many critics have underlined the lack of infra-structure as one of the root causes behind our sporting decline. I don’t think that it is the lack of infra-structure that has dogged us. What we failed to do was to systematically improve and utilize whatever infra-structure the country had developed over the years. I mean take a look at that great white elephant in Islamabad – the so-called Pakistan Sports Complex – and you will know what I’m talking about. It is a gigantic facility that was set up without developing a proper system to use it on a regular basis. Such wastage has been a norm as our sports chiefs have failed to properly utilize the available infra-structure. There is no point in building more and more stadiums if you can’t put the existing ones to good use.
We were unable to keep pace with rest of the world
Sports fans in Pakistan lament the fact that we have stopped producing world class sportsmen like Wasim Akram, Shahbaz Ahmed and Jahangir Khan. It’s partly true. But what we don’t understand is the fact that over the years, sport has advanced to a different level in many parts of the world. Squash, for example, is no more the same sport when Jahangir was its biggest star. Same is the case with hockey. The rules of the games have changed and so has its nature. In the past sport was an art, today it is pure science. Today we are trying to win a war with bows and arrows while many of our opponents are equipped with the latest gadgetry. It’s a lost cause.
Ignoring the mother of all sports – athletics
Many of us wouldn’t have heard of Abdul Khaliq, the Pakistani sprinter who was once adjudged as the fastest man in Asia. Many of us haven’t heard of him because we don’t care about athletics – the mother of all sports. We follow cricket, cricket and more cricket. But we have ignored athletics at our own peril. Without producing fit and fast athletes we cannot excel in many of the sports we love and that includes cricket. Today, most sports, including cricket, are more about power and speed than anything else. By investing in athletics at the school level we can make sure that most of our sportsmen will have the required physical abilities to excel in sports by the time they graduate to the national and then international level.
End of Part 1. The article concludes next week.