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Zero! That’s the number of medals Pakistan has won at the Olympics in the last three decades. A generation was born, raised and possibly now has its own offspring, but the medal draught still haunts this country. At the time of the filing of this story, Pakistan came very close to winning a solitary medal when weightlifter Talha Talib made waves in the men’s 67kg weightlifting category.

That Talha eventually stood fifth in the competition, missing bronze by only two kilogrammes, is a testament to the hard work he had put in, despite having very limited resources at hand. Talha, who is coached by his father, was left with no choice but to get assistance from Palestine’s coach at the main event, because he was accompanied by an official of the Pakistan-Asian Weightlifting Federation instead of his coach.

And unfortunately, he is not the only one who won’t have his/her coach by his/her side at the Olympics. Almost all athletes have their respective governing bodies’ officials as their ‘support personnel’. Pakistan, this year, fielded a contingent of 10 athletes and as many support personnel. For context, India has fielded the largest contingent it ever has, with 127 athletes (both male and female). They are supported by coaches, officials and team doctors with the number rounding up to 228.

What’s important to note is that the Indians (like others) are supported mostly by doctors and coaches, not by officials who jump at every chance of travelling with athletes at the expense of their coaches here.

The road to any of the Olympic Games is no cakewalk for athletes competing from Pakistan because of the strange ways of working of our sports bodies

It is incredible how these athletes are still representing Pakistan despite the lack of support by the Pakistan Sports Board and the Pakistan Olympics Association. That Pakistan is still participating in the Olympics when the International Olympics Committee has threatened to ban the country is an achievement in itself. And so, the athletes should not be discouraged; rather they should be hailed for making it to the main event still, despite the hurdles in their way.

Mahoor Shahzad, the first-ever Pakistani to represent the country in badminton at the Olympics, lost the first round to Akane Yamaguchi, who is ranked the fourth-best woman badminton player in the world. Her next match was with Kirsty Gilmour, who is ranked the 10th-best woman badminton player in the world. That match ended Mahoor’s Olympic journey. Mahoor acknowledges that she had ‘very tough’ fixtures, but she remained upbeat about trying her best to win the games.

“I used to train twice a day, six days a week, except for Sundays,” Mahoor had explained earlier about her training routine. “My training would last for approximately five hours every day. But, ever since I came to Japan, we have been getting [only] around one-and-a-half to two hours for practice, 30 minutes of which are spent in the main hall and the rest in the practice hall.”

She had added: “Unfortunately, our country does not have a solid standing in badminton, which is why I am the first badminton player to represent Pakistan at the Olympics in seven decades. I won’t give false hopes of winning the gold medal to people. I have got tough fixtures and I will try my best to bring my A-game to the fore.”

Arshad Nadeem, representing Pakistan in javelin throw at the Games, says his training went well. “We had two training sessions daily. The first session was held in the morning, which lasted for about one-and-a-half hours. The second and final was held in the evening, which would last for about two-and-a-half to three hours.”

Arshad says that he had worked two days a week to improve his javelin throwing technique, followed by power and speed trainings for two days each, with one rest day. He says that he trained at the camp for six months and was in high spirits, hoping to put an end to the medal draught.

Talking about facilities, Arshad says that there aren’t many facilities for javelin throwers in Pakistan. “I did not train at one place. I have trained at different places. To have a ground to train, sometimes I would go to the Punjab Stadium and sometimes to other places. I could not get all the facilities at one place,” he explains.

Shortlisted for the 200-metre sprint, Najma Parveen also says she is hopeful that she would make the country proud. “I have won six medals at the national level, because of which I was selected for participation at the Tokyo Olympics. I have been a national champion for 12 years and I am a national record holder. I have four medals from the South Asian Games — two gold, two silver and one bronze. I have also participated in the 2016 Olympics, and recently I had a decent run at the South Asian Games, where I set records for Pakistan,” she says.

Judoka Shah Hussain Shah, who lives in Japan, says that he had represented Pakistan in the 100kg category of judoka at the Olympics. “This is my second Olympics. My preparations went really well. But, it’s tough, you know? Stress and anxiety are part and parcel of our training, but I realise that I have to control it from getting to me.”

Shah realises that Pakistan has not won a medal at the Olympics for a long time. “My father got the last medal in boxing for Pakistan back in 1988. So, there is that bit of wanting to carry forward my father’s legacy as well,” he says.

Shah adds: “I have improved as an athlete in the last five years. I have started working on new things like mental training. I have hired a coach and trained with him. I have tried a lot of new things during this period, which has resulted in me performing to the best of my potential. My performance was pretty good last year. Unfortunately, things came to a standstill, training-wise, after Covid, albeit not just for me, but for everyone.

“Although I have no idea about other sports, but what really separates judoka from other sports is the fact that you do not have margin for error when it comes to world rankings. You have to make sure that you rank high among the top athletes at all times to qualify for the Olympics. It was difficult to maintain ranking last year because of the challenges posed by Covid.

“But having said that, Alhamdullillah, the support of the Pakistan Judo Federation, the Army Sports Directorate, the Pakistan Sports Board and the Pakistan Olympics Association, has enabled me to represent Pakistan.”

Among the five other athletes who represented Pakistan at the Olympics is Gulfam Joseph, who narrowly missed out on qualifying for the quarter-finals of 10m air pistol shooting at the time of filing this story. There is also Mohammed Khalil Akhtar and Ghulam Mustafa Bashir in 25m rapid fire pistol, who will be aiming for a medal at Tokyo. Representing Pakistan in swimming is Syed Mohammed Haseeb Tariq in 100m freestyle and Bisma Khan in 50m freestyle.

That they are competing with the best in the world is in itself an achievement for Pakistan for now. That nothing has been done to improve the deteriorating condition of sports by the prime minister of the country, who himself was a sportsperson, speaks volumes about the priorities that sports, other than cricket, get in the country.

While a task force was formed in September 2018, under the Pakistan Cricket Board chief Ehsan Mani, to improve the overall ambit of sports in Pakistan, nothing concrete has yet been done. So instead of ridiculing and criticising the athletes for their supposed ‘below-par’ performances, it is high time to provide them with best training equipment and facilities. Pakistan owes them at least this.

The writer tweets @HumayounAK

Published in Dawn, EOS, August 1st, 2021

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