August Issue 2008

By | Sports | Published 13 years ago

During the previous edition of the Olympic Games in Athens, I met with Pakistan’s sports chief General Arif Hassan at a chic lobby of the VIP stand at the Olympic hockey stadium. The meeting came at the time when all hopes of a Pakistani medal at the Games were completely wiped out, following the poor showing by its boxers and an equally unimpressive performance by the national hockey team. “We will do much better in Beijing,” the soft-spoken but big-talking chief of the Pakistan Olympic Association (POA) promised me.

beijing08The general revealed what he described as concrete measures he intended to take for the development of sports in Pakistan but pointed out that a lack of funds was the biggest hurdle in the way of Olympic medals for the country, which last won a medal at the Games — a hockey bronze — in 1996 in Barcelona. Since then Pakistan has returned empty-handed from Sydney (2000) and Athens (2004).

“We will launch fund-raising projects on a big scale and our athletes will go to Beijing after getting top-class training. Medals will surely follow,” he assured me.

That was four years ago.

The general partly fulfilled his promise. He launched the Pakistan Sports Trust (PST) — a body aimed at producing world champions — and fuelled it through hundreds of millions of rupees earned through the Hero Pakistani lottery.
But the second part of the promise, which talked about world-class athletes and Olympic medals, now seems like a fantasy. Pakistan’s Olympic underachievement is set to add another poor chapter in Beijing.

During the four years, starting from the Athens Games right up to Beijing, which is hosting the 2008 Games in August, Pakistan spent more money on its sportspersons than ever before. Thanks to the Hero Pakistani lottery, funds were no more a problem.

But it’s clear now that most of those funds just went down the drain.

It is quite apparent that Pakistani athletes will be going into the Beijing Games with worse pre-Olympic training than ever before. Pakistan will be competing in just four disciplines — hockey, athletics, swimming and shooting. Of these four, Pakistan has just qualified in hockey and that too thanks to host China. At the 2006 Asian Games in Doha, which also served as a qualification event for the Olympics, Pakistan crashed to a disappointing defeat in the semi-finals against China — counted among the minnows of world hockey. China featured in the final with Korea but since they had already qualified for the Olympic hockey event as hosts, Pakistan also made the cut for Beijing, even though they finished a disappointing third in the Asiad.

Four years back, five Pakistani boxers qualified for the Athens Games. But for Beijing, there wasn’t even a single pugilist who managed to qualify for the quadrennial spectacle. Pakistani boxers flopped in pre-Olympic qualification competitions held in various parts of the globe.

Pakistani shooters harboured hopes of qualifying for the Olympics with double Olympian Khurram Inam — an experienced skeet-shooter — and several of his compatriots trying their level best to make the cut for Beijing. They too were unable to qualify for the Games.

Pakistan met with a similar fate in weightlifting, swimming and athletics. In the end, it was because of wild-cards gifted by the International Olympic Association (IOC) that a nation of over 150 million people was provided a chance to compete in athletics, swimming and shooting events, in addition to hockey.

“At least one great myth has been shattered in the last four years,” says Shakeel Durrani, secretary-general of the Pakistan Boxing Federation (PBF). “Funds alone cannot guarantee sporting success,” he laments. Durrani believes that unless Pakistan formulates a concrete sports policy and implements it properly, nothing is going to work.
Pakistan won a boxing bronze at Seoul through Karachi’s Hussain Shah. Although their pugilists have regularly qualified for the Olympics, they have come home empty-handed since then.

“The boxing situation is worse, we have come down badly and that is why we failed in all qualifying competitions this time,” said Ali Akbar Shah, former PBF joint secretary.

The IOC gave away two wild-cards each in athletics and swimming, and one in shooting to the POA after which the size of the Pakistani contingent grew to 34, including 13 officials. There will be a total of 21 sportspersons, including 16 hockey players, two athletes, two swimmers and a shooter. That figure includes two women — Pakistan’s champion swimmer Kiran Khan and sprinter Sadaf Siddiqui.

Hockey

beijing08_hockeyIf there is one example that shows the haphazard and shoddy nature of Pakistan hockey, it is the case of experienced defender Zeeshan Ashraf. Till last year, Ashraf was not even the part of the team after being dismissed by national hockey team officials as a spent force. This August, the Quetta-based player will be leading Pakistan at the Olympic Games in Beijing. Zeeshan, one of the country’s most experienced players with 295 international caps, is at the helm of a side that has been routinely losing to lower-ranked teams like China and Belgium.

Pakistan have not won a major title since claiming their record fourth World Cup crown in 1994 in Sydney. Because of their poor run of form, most hockey experts give them little chance of even making the cut for the semi-finals in Beijing. But ask Zeeshan and he will tell you that there is hope. “We are not going to Beijing just to take part in the Olympics,” he told Newsline. “We are going there to win a medal, hopefully a gold medal.” Zeeshan is confident and says that this optimism is shared by his colleagues.

“We have a proud history in hockey, and our team will go all out to revive it,” said the captain.

Pakistan have certainly been one of the most dominant forces in the hockey world in the last five decades, as the national team finished on the Olympic hockey podium eight times, including three title-winning triumphs in Rome (1960), Mexico (1968) and Los Angeles (1984). But the team has been returning home empty-handed in recent times with disappointing failures in Sydney (2000) and Athens (2004).

In Beijing, only a miracle can help them  win a medal.

Pakistan are placed in group B of the contest with defending Olympic champions Australia, the Netherlands, Canada, Great Britain and South Africa. World champions Germany are bracketed with Spain, South Korea, New Zealand, Belgium and China in group A.

Pakistan have won two minor titles in the last ten months or so, but most of their victories have come against underdogs like Russia, Ukraine, Ireland and Scotland.

They go into the Olympics following a Test series defeat against rank outsiders Belgium, which says a lot about their preparations for the quadrennial spectacle.

But Pakistan’s head coach Khawaja Zakauddin remains positive about his team’s chances in Beijing. In fact, he compares his underachieving charges with the victorious squads of the sixties and seventies that used to ride roughshod over their rivals. “We have made the sort of team which Pakistan used to field in the sixties and seventies,” Zaka, a former Olympian, told Newsline. “In those years we normally opted for a combination of experience and youth, and this Olympic team has been selected on the same pattern.”

There is, however, one big difference. In the sixties and the seventies, Pakistan used to take the Olympic field following a series of ruthless wins over even their top challengers. This time, the Greenshirts will fly to Beijing praying for a miracle.

Athletics

Apart from the hockey team, which is hoping against hope to regain the Olympic title after last winning it in 1984 in Los Angeles, other Beijing-bound sports-persons from the country are just happy to be a part of the Games.
“For me, merely competing is an honour, so I will try to keep my head high because the Olympic spirit is all about competing,” said Sadaf, who would either be competing in the 100m or 200m spectacle at the Beijing Games, as a wild-card entrant is allowed to feature in just one event.

Sadaf is the Pakistan champion in both the 100m and 200m categories. In the National Athletics Championship, she won the 100m with a timing of 11.81 seconds and 200m in 24.36 seconds. But she didn’t do too well in the South Asian Athletics meet at Kochi this March, finishing fifth in the 200m event.

Her male teammate Abdul Rasheed is also an accomplished athlete at the national and regional level but stands no chance at the Olympic stage. Rasheed is the reigning national champion in 110m hurdles.

Athletics — regarded as the mother of all sports — hasn’t been Pakistan’s cup of tea in recent decades. Pakistan has never won an athletics medal in the Olympics since their debut in the London Games in 1948.

But they did show some spark back in the 1956 Games in Melbourne, when the country’s ace sprinter Abdul Khaliq qualified for the semi-finals, in both the 100m and 200m races. At the Rome Olympics in 1960, Ghulam Raziq made the cut for the 110m hurdles semi-finals and hammer thrower Mohammad Iqbal competed in the finals at the same Olympiad. But since then Pakistan has been reduced to the role of minnows in the world of athletics.

This year, Pakistan’s Olympic preparations were tainted by drug episodes, as their leading athletes Noshee Parveen and Mohammad Shah tested positive for banned substances and could be facing two-year suspensions from the track. A few months ago, hurdler Mohammad Sajjad, too, failed a drug test.

Swimming

Pakistan’s ace female swimmer Kiran Khalid Khan will be representing the country in Beijing along with Adil Baig.
Four years ago, Rubab Raza won a wild-card entry into the Athens Games ahead of Kiran. Rubab not only became the first ever girl swimmer to represent Pakistan at the Olympic Games, but also the country’s youngest athlete at the tender age of 13 to compete at this level.

But in the pool, Rubab failed to make much of a splash. The young girl swam her 50 metres freestyle heat in a poor time of 30.10 seconds and failed to qualify for the next stage. Overall, she was ranked 59th out of 75 swimmers.
It’s now Kiran’s turn to show the world that Pakistan can do better.

The Lahore-based Kiran has represented Pakistan at the Asian Games as well as the Commonwealth Games. She has won two gold medals at the Women’s Islamic Games.

She is by far the best swimmer at the national level, something that she proved in the National Championship this year by winning 15 gold medals and was later adjudged as the meet’s best swimmer.

Kiran, 18, is a daughter of former international swimmer Khalid Zaman. “It is a dream come true to represent Pakistan in the Olympics and my aim will be to better my own national record because I know it would be too tough to even qualify for the next stage,” says Kiran.

He may not be as accomplished as Kiran, but Adil is among the best swimmers of the country, having won two silver medals in the South Asian Games — one each in 2004 and 2006.

Adil, 25, represented Pakistan in the World Championships in Melbourne last March, finishing 119th out of 175 in the 50 metres freestyle event, 131st out of 169 in the 100 metres freestyle and 64th out of 73 in the 200 metres individual medley.

For the sake of comparison, Adil swam the 200 metres in 2:20.93 minutes, which was as much as 22.23 seconds slower than USA’s Michael Phelps who finished first in his heat, breaking a world record at 1:54.80 minutes in Omaha on July 4 this year.

Shooting

Another Pakistani who will be making up the numbers in Beijing is sharp-shooter Siddique Umer. The rifle-man from the Pakistan Army has emerged as one of the country’s best skeet-shooters and will be hoping to shine in Beijing. Siddique replaces Khurram Inam in the Pakistani Olympic contingent. After featuring in Sydney and Athens, Khurram failed to earn a wild card this time. n

The writer is ranked among the battle-hardened journalists covering sports. As sports editor for The News, he covers sporting action extensively in Pakistan and abroad.