It could be worse, but not much. Pakistan beat Argentina in the men’s hockey 2-0 with the winning goal scored by Sohail Abbas, his 346th in international competition. We drew 1-1 in the game against Spain and could yet find a podium place. Elsewhere in the Olympic world the news is less good. Swimmer Israr Hussain and shooter Khurram Inam both made an exit on Tuesday, and our remaining sporting talent is two athletes – Rabia Ashiq (800 m) and Liaqat Ali (100 m). With the best will in the world neither of them can be expected to do much beyond fly the flag with honour and dignity. On the opening day of the competition our swimmer 15 year-old Anam Bandey finished last out of 35 starters in the 400m medley heats, 36 seconds behind the next-last Argentinean. Anam Bandey had received some positive press prior to the games, but when measured against international standards was unable to deliver a world-class performance.
None of which is to say that any of our athletes or swimmers or shooters were doing anything other than their best. They will in future as they have so far in these Olympic Games, stretch every fibre of their body to do their best even though they know that the chances of a medal are little more than a very distant dream.
The reasons are not difficult to find, and we can hardly blame our aspirant athletes as is succinctly pointed out in a blog post by Ayesha Siddiqa. Our swimmers participated in the Olympics on the basis of a ‘wild card’ rather than open competition, and it takes years to train a swimmer to international never mind Olympic standards. Young swimmers start under-10, their talents spotted in school events. Similarly gymnasts or athletes. Once spotted, young sportsmen and women are groomed and trained by their native countries, resources invested in them. Wild card entries offer an opportunity to countries that have neither world-class athletes or world-class training facilities to participate in a premier international sporting event, a powerful encouragement to them to ‘raise their game’ – and it is in that context that we should view the performances of our Olympic team.
With the exception of cricket, hockey and – long ago – squash this is not a sporting nation. Swimming is largely confined to splashing about in canals in the summer. There are very few pools of a standard that would allow training to Olympic standards, even fewer trainers with knowledge of modern training techniques and a miniscule number of women who can swim anyway, never mind to a standard that would see them compete internationally. The schools that have swimming pools is an unknown number, but tiny. Running tracks? Opportunities for field-sport events like discus or javelin? And if anybody could tell me of a place where the archers of Pakistan congregate I would be happy to seek them out as an old archer myself. If polo were an Olympic event we might be in with a shout – but running a string of polo ponies is eye-wateringly expensive and anyway the ferociously rough form of the sport practiced here is a million miles from the manicured polo lawns of London or Argentina.
Given the prevalence of guns in our society one might have thought we could come up with some world-class shooters, and the sheer volume of cyclists in the country would suggest that we might occasionally turn out a Pakistani version of Bradley Wiggins or Chris Froome. Sprinters may come from those areas where large numbers of people run for their lives in fear of bomb-blasts, likewise high-jumpers, pole vaulters and those who might master the tricky art of the triple-jump.
To achieve sporting excellence anywhere in the world takes money, and often a very large sum of it. No matter how dedicated or talented the sportsman or woman, at the end of the day if they are to compete at anything other than local events, perhaps nationally, then they need the financial backing that will allow them to concentrate on their sport of choice. Pakistan is a poor country (although perhaps not as poor as some would have us all believe, not for nothing is the black economy widely believed to keep us afloat as a nation) and if we cannot make the fundamental investment in universal free education then there is little chance of creating a seed-bed in which to grow international sportspersons.
Let us then celebrate the efforts of our Olympians. The majority of them will have struggled against odds far greater than many of their international sporting contemporaries to get where they are today. They will have overcome prejudice, misogyny, a lack of facilities at every level and in the majority of sports, poverty, lack of local recognition and downright ignorance. Leave aside that they finished last or failed to qualify, but celebrate that they were competing at all. And when they get back it will not be with their tails between their legs, but heads high because our Olympians of today may be the coaching cohort of tomorrow, a goal worth aiming for.
The writer is a British social worker settled in Pakistan. Email: manticore73@ gmail.com