The legs say it all

Published Aug 04, 2012 12:05am

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, specially 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 organisations 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 marginalise 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 gruelling 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.

The writer is the author of Fatal Faultlines: Pakistan, Islam and the West. irfan.husain@gmail.com


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Comments (15) (Closed)


Mahmood
Aug 04, 2012 12:18pm
I agree with the assertion that it is the skinny legs. People of south asian origin growing and living in western countries where they are provided the same resources that others have in school still do not do well in Athletics, football and swimming. I don't know of any south asian who is won any medals from GB, Canada or the US.
Nathan Sethuraman
Aug 04, 2012 11:05am
Let us not worry about skinny legs or that we are not good at sports. Let us be paranoid that we are not educating our children, not taking care of them adequately , that our senior citizens do not get adequate nutrition or health care. If we provide good education, nutrition and health care to our fellow South Asians winning in sports will come sooner or later. Even if winning does not follow, so what? Look at Norway, it has the best living conditions for its residents and wins very few medals. I don’t think Norway cares.
Karachi Wala
Aug 04, 2012 10:54am
Governmental and institutional patronage aside, there is got to be a deep rooted desire and hard work for an individual to excel in any sport. Look, how many times athletes from poor African nations have won various marathons. I do not think governments played any parts in the success of Hashim Khan Clan. It was pure hard work and determination. Hard work, Patience and using one’s brain are the key to success.
Nathan Sethuraman
Aug 04, 2012 10:46am
Regarding skinny legs, the reason is that we South Asians live in hot climates and therefore eat little meat. We are skinny so that we can bear the heat easily. The best marathon runners are from the hottest parts of Africa and they have very skinny legs. Thick muscular legs do not automatically mean strong legs, athletic legs. One can have thin legs and still have strong legs.
Nathan Sethuraman
Aug 04, 2012 10:42am
As an Indian South Asian I am least bit bothered by the fact that we South Asians do not perform on par with the Westerners and the Chinese in sports. I am however deeply saddened that we do not allocate our resources to the education of children, especially the 1st to 12th grade education when minds are trained. In the West education comes first. I would however like to see a cricket series when a South Asian team comprising of Afghans, Bangladeshis, Bhutanese, Burmese, Indians, Nepalis, Pakistanis and Sri Lankans takes on the rest of the world. In fact I would like to see a joint army comprising of men and women comprising of Afghans, Bangladeshis, Bhutanese, Burmese, Indians, Nepalis, Pakistanis and Sri Lankans sending a message to the rest of the world--"DON'T MESS WITH US".
indian Muslim
Aug 04, 2012 04:05am
True boss and We Indians suck at organization. The Indian government should do a WOT contract for INdian Olympics and give an incentive of one million per medal to a private contractor and get rid of the Olympics commitee
BRR
Aug 04, 2012 04:22am
The writer has made some good observations. Perhaps what is lost on the writer is more recent changes in the Indian sports scene which augurs well for the future - the big following in shooting events after Bindra's triumph in Beijing, the archery events where quite a few women have made significant progress, and boxing where they still put up a good show. Things do look better, and there is still hope - especially if corporate sponsors get into Shooting, Archery, badminton and other events.
ahmet abdulaziz
Aug 04, 2012 05:54am
Basically as a nation we have stopped concentrating on the mothers of all sports.........Athletics. We must create an atmosphere , where young and old, all must run. That would improve our basic fitness standard. With a fit nation, we can do wonders, not just in sports only.
Zaka
Aug 04, 2012 06:47am
Your comments about legs are absolutely right. I have been holding similar views since long as one feel ashamed to look at the pakistani squad in the olympics.
Cyrus Howell
Aug 04, 2012 09:04am
Winning in sports is a matter of how much a person wants to win. There are swimmers. There are athletes. Most people don't know how hard athletes train. How hard they work. The boxer, Sugar Ray Robinson was the greatest prize fighter of all time. His secret that he was an athlete, not a boxer. Many have the desire to win, but not enough desire (or the chance) to practice and train every day..
Tom
Aug 04, 2012 02:54pm
I think India is gradually improving. In the last games we had 3 medals. This time we should get around 5-6 and maybe more for the next games. India is at that point in its development where it can afford to spend a little on sports.
Alikhan
Aug 04, 2012 02:55pm
It is not sports only, the subcontinent is not improving in all other respects either. India, Pakistan and Bangladesh rank very low in UN's Human Development Index. All south Asian countries have failed the common men. It is obvious that the government won't do do anything good, it is futile to appeal to the government. It is high time that people in the sub continent call for small government and more private initiatives. Of course, the incentives have to be aligned to reward success. The rewards should not go the relatives of well connected. It is this culture that keep the sub continent down and need to change.
Rishi
Aug 04, 2012 03:37pm
Norway is top notch sporting country for Winter Olympic games.
butseriouslyok
Aug 04, 2012 08:08pm
It is primarily a cultural issue. Physical sports are not part of our culture so when the elderly people sit to plan city/town/building, a play area is at the bottom of their list of necessities. Most other parts of the world, people enjoy sports long into their adulthood. It will take at least another generation before we start seeing a meaningful change in the culture...but I am optimistic.
Deepak
Aug 12, 2012 03:48pm
Sir, the point is well taken that the south asians are not natural at many of these sports. But India won 6 medals this time around (2 silver and 4 bronze). Clearly this is an improvement over the past several decades when it was hockey or bust. Also Beijing we had 3 medals. So there is progressive improvement. I think India should aim for a double digit of medals in Rio.