All that is required is concerted efforts in the areas of identifying the talent and then putting it through proper training and suitable competition. The task is difficult but not impossible.
The 23rd edition of the biennial Asian Athletics Championships was recently held in Doha, capital of Doha where 20 countries shared the 129 medals at stake.
Pakistan returned empty handed. Javelin thrower Arshad Nadeem, the bronze medallist from last year’s Asian Games, was Pakistan’s lone hope. But he finished a disappointing sixth. The country’s other male and female participants couldn’t even make it to the final round of their respective events.
It might seem unbelievable but there was a time when Pakistan not only dominated the Asian athletics scene but also had world class performers. That was more than half a century ago, in 1950s and 60s.
It would be immediately pointed out that Pakistan never won an Olympic medal in track and field. So it is pertinent to mention 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 our athletes produced world class performances.
Abdul Khaliq, whose role was later played so prominently in the 2013 Bollywood blockbuster Bhaag Milkha Bhaag was the Fastest Man of Asia. He won the 100 metres sprint twice at the Asian Games (1954 and 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 the same time in the semi-final. His time was the best for all the rounds, except the final. These achievements placed him in top seven sprinters of the time.
Ghulam Raziq was a world class hurdler who won every title other than an Olympic medal: two golds and a 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. He won a complete set of medals; gold, silver and bronze in three Asiads (1954, 58 and 62). In the more competitive environs of the Commonwealth Games as well, he grabbed medals of all the three colours: gold in 1954, silver in 1958 and bronze in 1966.
At the 1956 Olympics, he was at his best and people had medal hopes from Iqbal. He was a bit off colour and yet finished 10th.
Another throwing event where Pakistan has had remarkable success is javelin. We had not one but two outstanding performers, Mohammad Nawaz and Jalal Khan.
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 bronze in 1966. At the 1956 Olympics, he was a creditable 13th.
Jalal was mostly just behind his countryman at all the big meets: silver behind Nawaz at both the 1954 & the 1958 Asiads, bronze at the 1954 Commonwealth Games (Nawaz silver), 14th at the 1956 Olympic Games, again one place below Nawaz.
However, at the1958 Commonwealth games, he managed to surpass his great rival. Jalal won the silver with Nawaz not among the medals.
Pakistan also produced a remarkable long distance athlete by the name of Mubarak Shah. He is the only Pakistani sportsman to have won two golds 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 in 1958.
At the Olympics, track and field has forever been the top draw, and is dubbed ‘Mother of all Sports’.
However, after those ‘golden six’, Pakistan failed to produce a real world class athlete. A few did shine at the Asian level. Middle distance runner Mohammad Younis performed consistently, winning silver, gold and silver at 1,500 metres in the 1970, 74 and 78 Asiads, respectively. 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 gold through the javelin thrower Allah Dad. Then Ghulam Abbas (400m hurdles) won gold in the 1990 Asian Games.
What was special about the athletes of the 1950s and early 1960s? They were army soldiers and all came from the Potohar region. They had a great mentor in Brigadier CHB Rodham of Army Sports Control Board, who ensured proper coaching and regular international competition for them.
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 and strength plus the most vital killer-instinct.
Athletics is one sporting discipline not requiring large 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.
This scribe has spent time in Pakistan’s northern areas and has been to a height of more than 21,000 feet and 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 makes 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 proper training and suitable competition. The task is difficult but not impossible. It requires someone like Brig Rodham at the helm of the Pakistan athletics.