Somehow, you find it difficult to associate the all-time great squash champion, Jahangir Khan, with anything other than the sport — you certainly don’t expect to find him sitting behind a huge desk in an office building that is sprawling to say the least. But, that is exactly where you are likely to find him today, at least during the day. However, that is not to say that Khan has abandoned his first love altogether — far from it, as one soon discovers.
Born in Karachi in 1963 in a family of squash champions — both father, Roshan, and older brother, Torsam, were squash icons — Khan didn’t exactly have an easy time with the sport, simply because it was in his genes. He was born with hernia and had a hearing problem to boot, so that he didn’t learn to speak till he was a young boy. He had two hernia surgeries; one at the age of five, and the other at 12, and his doctor had expressly forbidden his father from allowing him to play squash as he had felt it would be physically too strenuous for him.
Spending his early years in Karachi, completing his schooling from Junior and Senior Model School, Khan recalls hiding from his family and playing squash in the balcony of his house with the little racquet that his father had given him. He remembers, “Before my second surgery, when summer vacations began, I requested my older brother and father to allow me to go to the club where my father was a squash coach, and they agreed on the condition that I would only watch, and not play. That helped open doors for me and, unknown to them I would land up playing on my own, and occasionally with members.
“One day my father discovered that I was not only playing, but playing very well. Before he could take any action, I underwent my second surgery, and after that I was given a clean bill of health. As for my hearing, my mother tried out a lot of home remedies on me, and it improved to a large extent, so that by the time I was eight I had finally begun to speak.”
Khan was soon inducted in PIA’s squash team which had been introduced by Nur Khan for the under-19 players, which made life relatively easy for him as the stipend (a princely amount of Rs250) and facilities provided by PIA made it possible for him to travel and purchase his gear, etc. He participated in many tournaments abroad and became a National Junior Champion at the age of 14.
At 15, Khan left for England for further studies as well as to pursue squash. “My brother, Torsam, was living there at the time and playing in the professional circuit, and he offered that I could stay with him so that I could study and get my training at the same time,” he explains.
He had hardly received training for a few months when he qualified for the World Amateur Individual Championship and not only won it, but was also the youngest-ever winner of that event. A month later though, tragedy struck when his brother passed away. He reminisces, “I was in shock — I didn’t know what to do. I was very close to him and was so depressed that I couldn’t bring myself to play for the following few months. But it was my brother’s dream to see me as a World Champion and my father and cousins began to push me towards it. They insisted that even if I don’t play for myself I should play to make history, as per my brother’s wishes. That’s when I decided I would make history, and the next two years I worked so hard that I became the world champion at the age of 17.”
That was the start of his career, so to speak. “My circumstances changed completely. I gave up my studies while still in O’ Levels and took up squash full time as a professional. My cousin, Rahmat Khan, who was also living in England then took me under his wing. I began to live with him, and he became my coach and trainer. After beating Geoff Hunt and becoming the world champion there was no looking back. It was one tournament after another and though England remained my base I would be doing the professional circuit the whole year.”
With eight hours of training daily for six days a week, that included running 10 miles a day, playing squash for three to four hours, taking training from the coach, swimming and using the gym, Khan says that he maintained this rigorous regime even when he had reached the pinnacle of success. The only sportsman with an unbeaten record in the Guinness Book of Records — he remained unbeaten for five years and eight months (from 1981 to 1986) in which he played 555 matches and won the World Open six times — he boasts the longest winning streak by any athlete in top-level professional sports, the other sportsman coming closest to achieving Khan’s records being the American athlete, Edwin Moses, who remained unbeaten for three-and-a-half years.
Khan also has an unbeaten record of winning 10 years straight in the British Open (from 1982 to 1991), and retired early at the age of 29 in 1993, when he was still number one and had helped Pakistan win the World Team Championship. Khan says he has no regrets that he left the game when he did rather than continuing for a few more years for he firmly believes that he achieved more than he could have ever dreamt of, and it was best for him to bow out gracefully and always be remembered as a champion than continue and become a has-been. He took up coaching squash to the Royal Family of Brunei instead, after retirement, and continued to do so for six or seven years.
Like Khan’s professional life, his personal life has not exactly been smooth sailing either. He got married in 1991, which ended in a divorce, and then got married again in 1995. He has two children, a daughter and a son, from his second wife after which he remarried and has three daughters from his third wife. Living with his second wife now, he says that none of his five children are interested in sports. Khan, in fact, believes that kids today, even those who have all the facilities at their fingertips don’t have the determination and devotion to pursue their passion like the kids of yore.
He adds, “Let’s face it. There is no setup in Pakistan to train and groom young players at the grassroots level in different sports. Those of us who did make a name for ourselves and became champions did it with our own initiative — there was no academy to back us till we reached a certain level on our own. However, given this scenario, kids today don’t want to take up the challenge by themselves, which is why you don’t see championship material coming up any more.”
Another reason for the current lack of sportsmen in Pakistan who have what it takes, feels Khan, is the politics involved in the selection of people running sports federations. “People who have nothing to do with sports are now heading the federations so obviously when merit is replaced by sycophancy, talent will suffer.”
In 1998, Khan became the vice president of the World Squash Federation, subsequently becoming its president in 2002, a position he held for six years. Currently he is its emeritus president and is also on their advisory panel. He is also the vice chairman of the Roshan Khan-Jahangir Khan Squash Complex where he had himself received training and his father had been a coach.
Besides this, Khan, in partnership with his friends, has also started his own business of satellite broadband communication. One is sure, judging by this Hilal-i-Imtiaz recipient’s past performances that he will find himself as adept at this relatively new territory as he did in squash.