THE celebration of the first International Day of Sport for Development and Peace on the coming Sunday (April 6, 2014) will be an appropriate occasion to determine whether the children and youth in Pakistan can enjoy their right to play.
It was only in August last year that the UN General Assembly decided to focus on April 6 — the date of the opening of the modern Olympic Games in 1896 — each year on the contribution sport can make to education, human development and elimination of social conflicts.
Considerable credit for promoting the philosophy of sport for development and peace goes to an international initiative, Right to Play, founded by a four-time Norwegian Olympic gold medalist, Johann Olav Koss.
The organisation claims that it is helping one million children in more than 20 countries every week to use the transformative power of sport to “build essential life skills and a better future”. The concept that sport and physical exercise promote physical and mental health and enable people to overcome their racial, ethnic and class distinctions is not unknown in Pakistan.
The issues that need to be addressed during a debate on sport for development and peace here are: does the educational system attach due importance to sports? Are the sports bodies properly organised and adequately provided for? Did the objectives of the youth/sports festivals recently held in the various provinces include the promotion of social peace and harmony?
It is no secret that the education authorities do not give sport and physical training their due place in the scheme of public instruction. The surveys of what our schools lack do not always refer to the absence of playing fields and sports activity.
Gone are the days when a high school without a playing ground was not counted among respectable institutions.
While this condition must still be enforced in areas where land is available, in crowded cities other means need to be explored. The local government institutions can perhaps create regular sports and physical training facilities by building playing grounds and gymnasia for clusters of schools.
The state of sports organisations is causing serious concern to all sports lovers. The tussle between two national Olympic associations is quite a scandal. The hockey federation is paralysed by lack of resources and the state’s indifference.
The game of cricket has been sullied by a vulgar competition for power and money among administrators and players both.
The defence establishment still dominates the national athletic scene but it has failed throw up worthy successors to Brigadier Rodham, who had guided stars like Abdul Khaliq and Fazl-i-Raziq, or to air force officers who had pooled their resources to launch Hashim Khan on his march to glory on the squash court.
The present-day cricketers, most of whom appear to have come out of Kerry Packer’s stable, and their employers, as well as other sports organisers must realise that periodic tournaments are no substitute for year-round grooming of talent at schools/colleges and at clubs, such as we had in all major cities till some years ago.
There is little doubt that a large number of people took part in the youth festivals held in Punjab, Sindh and Balochistan. But these activities attracted criticism on a number of counts. Sport and culture seemed to have been exploited for promoting the narrow interests of the political authorities.
There was an excessive reliance on public funds and bureaucratic channels, and too little on fostering volunteerism and encouraging local, especially rural, communities to democratically organise themselves. The bid to fuel nationalist fervour, by viewing neighbouring countries as enemies and not as bona fide competitors, crossed the limits of decency.
One must admit the valuable initiatives taken by the corporate sector not only in regard to cricket and hockey but also for other sports, such as polo, golf and snooker. It is necessary to benefit from the talent and resources of these organisers in the national planning stages.
While designing a vastly improved national calendar of athletic and sports events, both in educational institutions and outside, the goals must be clearly defined. One of the goals must be to offer equal chances to people to excel on the field, regardless of their belief, ethnicity or social status.
Children of different religious communities must be encouraged to play together. This will promote inter-faith harmony better than the authorities’ empty rhetoric. Our sports planners should realise that if the Afghan cricketers can give their people an identity they did not have before, is it impossible to attract the tribal population to sports?
What sport should be encouraged where, should be decided on the basis of the relevant community’s resources and preferences.
For instance, soccer, the world’s most popular game, has been neglected in Pakistan because its best players belonged to the permanent target of indifference and discrimination — Balochistan. Likewise, the failure of a land of rivers to throw up swimmers and boatmen of international calibre can only be attributed to the ruling elite’s myopic approach.
Before anything worthwhile can be attempted the policymakers must accept the children’s/youth’s entitlement to sport as one of their fundamental rights and that all sports activity should be related to the people’s supreme need for a democratic, tolerant, and prejudice-free order.
Besides, sport is needed not so much for the state’s glory as for helping more and more Pakistanis realise themselves as successful sports persons. The pleasure of excelling in sports is a worthwhile end in itself. n