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The legs say it all

By: Irfan Husain

HERE’S an odd thing: Anum Bandey, the young Pakistani swimmer, broke the Pakistani national record in the Olympics 400-metre medley with a time of 5:34.64. But as she placed 35th, she failed to qualify for the next round.

This speaks volumes for the low standards in Pakistan, as well as for how world timings are continuously improving. I mean no criticism of 15-year-old Anum. She swam her heart out and bettered her own best and the Pakistani record. No doubt she will improve further. In fact, it is a matter for celebration that a Pakistani girl competed in the swimming event at all.

It’s the same story in virtually every sport: the world is moving ahead while our standards fall. But it’s not just Pakistan that’s doing badly in world sports. Across the subcontinent we are falling behind except, possibly, in cricket.

In fact, it could be argued that given our passion for the game, it has sucked the oxygen out of other sports. The bulk of our meagre resources earmarked for sports go to cricket. And talented young players all want to become cricket stars because that’s where the money is. This is equally true of India and Sri Lanka.

The subcontinent, with a combined population of around 1.5 billion, or close to a quarter of humanity, has sent just over 100 men and women to compete at the London Olympics. At the time of writing, India is the only South Asian nation to have won a medal — a bronze in air rifle shooting. Given our past track record, we will be near the very bottom of the medals table yet again.

Our only hope is in hockey, and while I would be happy to be proved wrong, a medal here is a very long shot. Standards, especially among European nations, have been rising for years while we have stagnated. Paradoxically, a major reason for our decline in the national sport is literally a level playing field. When the game was played on natural surfaces, the ball bounced unevenly, and our delicate short-passing technique overcame the disadvantage of our slim physique.

But with the introduction of Astroturf, the game became better suited to long, deep passes, and the more physical style of Western teams took them to the top. Also, this artificial surface was too expensive to lay out in local schools and colleges.

Squash was another game in which we dominated, with the Hashim Khan clan ruling the roost for years. But it’s years now since a Pakistani has figured in the top 10. With more money in the sport, more and more people are playing around the world, many professionally. Unwilling or unable to invest in squash courts, we have tumbled in world rankings.

There was a time when organizations such as the army, PIA, the railways, etc fielded strong departmental teams trained and put on the payroll. Senior officials took a keen interest in their performance and national competitions were followed by fans across the country. Now, apart from cricket and possibly hockey, nobody’s pushed about the results.

We often tend to blame our poor performance on a lack of resources. But the truth is that 40 years ago, when we were far poorer as a nation, we managed to support our sportsmen much better than we do now.

One factor we often overlook when we are bemoaning our mediocrity in sports is the virtual absence of women from our playing fields. In Pakistan, we are painfully aware of the status of women: in the majority of families, girls come second after boys in terms of food, medicine and education. Raised virtually in isolation, they have no possibility of participating in sports unless they are from well-off families and attend private schools.

Things aren’t much better across the border. Despite being the world’s biggest democracy, the lot of Indian women is the worst in the G20 countries, trailing behind even Saudi Arabia. When you marginalize half your population, don’t be disappointed at the results, not just in sports but in life generally.

Forget the Olympics for a moment. In the football World Cup, no team from the subcontinent has even qualified for the world’s most popular sporting event in something like 60 years. Although the sport is widely played in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, we have been unable to produce a team that can compete at the global level.

I had a theory once about why we did so badly at football: desis have skinny legs. But then Kenyans and Ethiopians do, too, and they run tirelessly. Indeed, they have won a huge number of medals and prizes for long-distance running over the years.

The truth is that to compete at the top level, teams need a lot of logistical support. Coaching and sporting facilities, apart from a good diet, are indispensable. Gone are the days when school or college games teachers could produce world-beaters. Now, technology and equipment can make a substantial difference in performance.

But nothing can replace motivation and dedication.

Look at the progress the Chinese have made. They led the medals table at the Beijing Olympics and could well repeat that performance in London. Their athletes are selected early and then put through a grueling training regime by highly paid coaches. Those who walk up to the winners’ podium to receive their medals have put in years of incredibly hard work.

In Pakistan, our sportsmen — with the exception of cricketers — have little motivation and even less guidance. Even premier institutions such as Aitchison College and Government College are no longer the nurseries for budding sports stars that they used to be.

But while sports in Pakistan has fallen victim to the same shambolic level of governance that other areas of activity have, it is surprising to see India not doing much better. After all, with a much bigger population and far more resources, one would have expected the public and private sectors to sponsor Indian sportsmen to compete at the international level. Thus far, at least, there is no evidence of this happening.

Next time you watch desis competing at the Olympics, look at their legs and tell me I’m wrong.