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April 11, 2019

Something lost, something gained

Sports

April 11, 2019

LAHORE: The holding of the Punjab Games in Lahore after a prolonged interval of eight years is certainly welcome. It suggests the Punjab Sports Board is once again determined to go about its business of promoting sport at regional level and encouraging young people to participate.

The participation of the nine divisions of the Punjab should indeed have brought sporting talent from across the province onto a central stage. The fact that athletes associated with departments, including Army, WAPDA and other bodies, were not permitted to take part meant of course that the best players in each sport were largely absent. The structure of sports in the country certainly needs review, as the prime minister and others have suggested. But until a new system can be built, it makes little sense to exclude athletes who have a domicile from a particular province from participation in sporting events. Indeed, this is a disservice to sports.

Of greater concern is the reported difficulty in putting together teams of genuine quality from the various divisions. Dozens of events, notably those for women, were canceled because beyond Lahore, Faisalabad and Rawalpindi, in most cases, it was not always possible to assemble teams in the various sports. The sports structure then has very little width and little depth as well.

The evidence of this is visible in our overall performances. Pakistan’s national record for the 100m sprint stands at 10.42 seconds and was set in 2005. Over a decade later, it has not been broken. The South Asian record stands at 10.26, established by Sri Lankan runner Himasha Eashan in 2016.

It seems that over the years, we have fallen behind other South Asian countries. In fact, of the 22 events in athletics, nine current records are held by India, a commendable eight by Sri Lanka and four by Pakistan. All of the Pakistani records shockingly date back to the 1980s and 1990s. Why have we failed to make any progress since this time and why are we falling so far behind countries like Sri Lanka, with a population of only 21 million compared to Pakistan’s 220 million people.

The difference is stark. The same pattern of records and results is carried through into other sports. We have not been able to keep up with even our South Asian neighbours. And alongside this problem, accusations of nepotism in the award of major prizes at the games do not help matters at all.

What the Punjab Games have shown most clearly of all is that Pakistan has a great deal of work to do. As we stand just over a year before the 2020 Olympics, there is no evidence that any Pakistani athlete or team will qualify for the largest sporting event in the world. This is despite the fact that Pakistan is the 6th most populous country on this planet and poised to move into fifth place.

Pakistan’s entrance at the Olympics may only be on the basis of the wildcard spots given to two players in athletics and swimming. More worrying is the fact we do not seem especially determined to overcome these issues. As South Asian nations continue to move ahead of us, repeated pleas from sports officials, athletes and others that preparations begin for participation in the 13th South Asian Games in Katmandu later this year had not begun.

In fact, money has not been released to sporting federations for several months. It is also feared Pakistan may be in no position to host the next edition of the South Asian Games, which would be an embarrassing blow to the country. Sri Lanka has already made its offer to step in quite clear as has Bangladesh.

Till the 1990s, Pakistan appeared to have been able to compete at least with other South Asian countries in most sports. It has since then fallen further and further behind. As an athlete from Multan at the Games said, “We have no training facilities, no coaches with advanced knowledge of sports and the manner in which it is changing and no encouragement. So how can we succeed?” His points are very valid ones. The question is, what are we doing to change this sad reality and give our country back the national pride and unity that sports can.

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