The 15th World Athletics Championships was recently held in Beijing. After the Olympics and the Football World Cup, the World Athletics Championships is the most watched and followed sporting event.
Around 2,000 athletes from 205 countries and territories competed. Pakistan, world’s sixth most populous country, had only one representative: 200 metre runner Liaqat Ali who owed his presence to a wild card. No wonder he got eliminated in the first round.
As many as 43 countries shared the 144 medals.
It might seem unbelievable but there was a time when Pakistan athletics had world class performers. That was more than half a century ago, in fifties and early sixties. One would immediately point out that Pakistan has never won an Olympic medal in track and field. Pertinent to mention here is the fact that in those days, the Olympics were the only stage where athletes from all over the world competed.
The World Athletics Championships only began in 1983, and there were no grand prix athletics meets either.
Pakistan may not have won an athletics medal at the Olympics, but a number of its athletes produced world class performances.
Abdul Khaliq was the Fastest Man of Asia. He won the 100 metres sprint twice at the Asian Games (1954, 1958). Of medium height and beautifully muscled, Khaliq excelled at the Olympics as well.
In the 1956 Olympiad, he was at his peak, reaching the semi-finals of 100 and 200 metres and narrowly missing qualification for the final in both. His best timing in 100 metres was 10.4 sec, equal to that of the last Olympics (1952) gold winner. In 200 metres, his performance was even more astonishing. He won both the first two rounds, clocking 21.1 seconds. Unfortunately, Khaliq failed to repeat it in the semi-final. His time was the best for all the rounds, except that of the final. These achievements placed him in top seven sprinters of the time.
A couple of Khaliq’s 200 metre duels with Indian Milkha Singh were given special place in latter’s bio pic ‘Bhag Milkha Bhag’, a hugely successful 2013 Bollywood flick.
Ghulam Raziq was a world class hurdler who won every title other than an Olympic medal. He won two gold medals and one silver in three Asiads (1958, ‘62 & ‘66). He also won gold at the Commonwealth Games (1962), an honour which had eluded Khaliq.
Long-limbed Raziq had ideal physical attributes for a hurdler—speed, agility and suppleness. He too shone brightly at the Olympics, reaching the semi-finals in 1956 and 1960.
Then there was the giant figure of Mohammad Iqbal, the hammer thrower. Iqbal won a complete set of medals, gold, silver and bronze, in three Asiads (1954, ‘58 and ‘62).
In more competitive environs of the Commonwealth Games, he grabbed gold in 1954, and silver four years later.
In the 1956 Olympics, people had medal hopes from Iqbal. He was a bit off colour, but yet finished 10th.
Another great Pakistani athlete who attained remarkable success in throwing events was Mohammad Nawaz, with javelin. Nawaz narrowly failed to achieve a hat-trick of Asiad golds. Having won gold in the previous two editions, he was narrowly beaten to second place in the 1962 Asiad.
Nawaz’s Asian record stood for about two decades. At the Commonwealth Games, he bagged silver in 1954 and at the 1956 Olympics, he was a creditable 13th.
Pakistan also produced a remarkable long distance athlete by the name of Mubarak Shah. He has a distinction no Pakistani sportsman achieved in any discipline. He won two gold medals in a single Asiad. In 1962, Shah won the 3000 metres steeple chase as well as the 5000 metres, creating a new Asian record in both. He had a good chance in the 10,000 metres but the schedule forced him to withdraw.
Add to it the steeple chase gold at the 1958 Asiad and Mubarak has another unique record: three individual Asiad golds.
He also won a 10,000 silver medal in 1958. To emphasise the magnitude of their achievements, how would it be to have a Pakistani tennis player in world’s top 7-12 rankings? Awesome! Khaliq, Raziq, Nawaz and Iqbal attained comparable status at some stage of their careers.
At the Olympics, track and field has forever been the top draw — and is dubbed ‘Mother of all Sports’.
However, after those ‘golden five’, Pakistan failed to produce a real world class athlete. A few did shine at the Asian level, though.
Middle distance runner Mohammad Younis performed consistently well and won silver, gold and silver at 1,500 metres in the 1970, ‘74 and ‘78 Asiads.
In the inaugural Asian athletics championships in 1973, Younis narrowly missed out on the middle distance runner’s double — beaten to silver in his favourite 1,500m after winning gold in 800m gold.
In the same meet, Pakistan fetched another gold, through the javelin thrower Allah Dad. Then Ghulam Abbas (400m hurdles) won gold in the 1990 Asian Games.
But no Pakistani athlete since the greats of ‘50s and ‘60s has been able to go beyond the first round at the Olympics/World Championships or even Commonwealth Games.
So what was special about the athletes of the 1950s and early 1960s? They were army soldiers and all came from the Potohar area of Punjab. They had a great mentor in Brig Rodham, who ensured proper coaching and regular international competition for them.
Perhaps more importantly, they were all primarily kabaddi players before joining army.
Kabaddi, the traditional sport of Punjab’s villages, is regarded by many as the nearest thing to a complete sport. It builds all the major attributes — speed, stamina, strength and the vital killer-instinct.
Athletics is one sporting discipline that does not require many resources.
Poor countries like Kenya and Ethiopia are major powers in distance running. In Kenya, in the 1960s, the European priests were amazed to observe that the local children daily walked and ran miles on hills to reach the school.
They thought about utilising this immense stamina of poor kids into something beneficial. Hence, they devised the plan to groom these kids as long distance runners. The rest is history: Kenya has been the dominating force in races from 800 metres to the marathon for more than four decades.
At the 2015 Championships, Kenya topped the overall medal standings. This scribe has spent time in Pakistan’s northern areas and has been to a height of more than 21,000 feet. One was awestruck to see the ease with which the people of Gilgit-Baltistan walked up the mountains — at such great heights where rarefied atmosphere with low oxygen concentration made it difficult to breathe normally.
It won’t be a far-fetched dream to see the Kenyan success story replicated in Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltistan.
All that is required is concerted efforts in the areas of identifying the talent and then putting it through paces by providing proper training and suitable competition.
The task is difficult but not impossible. Unlike Brigadier Rodham, we presently have people like Lt General Akram Sahi at the helm of athletics affairs. What to talk of excelling at the world stage, for last more than two decades, even a medal at the Asian level has remained well out of reach.
At the last Asian athletics championships, in June 2015, not a single Pakistani could qualify for the final of any event.
Sahi, a total failure as the athletics boss, perceived himself as the messiah of all the Pakistan sports.
It was he who raised a parallel POA (Pakistan Olympic Association), now defunct, a few years back challenging the IOC-backed POA led by Lt Gen Arif Hasan. That led to a surfeit of parallel associations.
As a result, Pakistan sports went into complete disarray. The infighting meant the national teams couldn’t even figure in many international events.
After a series of debacles in hockey, the highest office of the land took serious notice of the affairs. Consequently, the president and the secretary of the PHF have been removed. The nation expects similar steps in other sports disciplines as well.