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The celebrated son of a forgotten champion

Updated July 28, 2014

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Shah Hussain Shah (second from left). -Photo courtesy International Judo Federation
Shah Hussain Shah (second from left). -Photo courtesy International Judo Federation

Shah Hussain Shah has kept his family's sporting legacy well and truly alive, winning the silver medal at the ongoing XX Commonwealth Games 2014 in Glasgow, Scotland on Sunday.

Judoka Shah Hussain Shah's victory is special because it has finally put Pakistan on the medals table at this year's Games. But it is especially significant considering the dramatic backstory that is associated with the Shah name.

The 21-year-old is the son of legendary boxer Hussain Shah who, it can safely be said, took the sport to a new level in Pakistan in the 80s and was considered among the best in Asia during that era. The judo star's achievement will surely evoke in the Shah household memories of that glorious period and also the abandonment that followed as his father Hussain Shah slowly faded from the minds of the administrators and imagination of the public.

As the press now lines up to celebrate Hussain Shah's son's achievement with the predictable cries of "how Pakistan manages to make it despite the odds", it is worth remembering the life of the father, a boxing phenom who never got his due.


From Lyari to Seoul


Growing up to a hard-knock life in Karachi's Lyari Town in the 60s, Hussain Shah spent a large part of his childhood on unpredictable streets that have now earned notoriety. Working as a labourer in his teens, Hussain Shah's irrepressible energy finally found an outlet through boxing, a sport that finds as many impassioned fans as football does in Lyari.

Before he knew it, the naturally gifted fighter was in the ring in Pakistan colours.

As a 20-year-old, Hussain Shah struck gold on his international debut at the 1984 South Asian Games before embarking on a winning streak that would well put him atop the boxing hierarchy in Asia. The light-heavyweight boxer fought his way to a podium finish at the 1985, 1987, 1989 and the 1991 South Asian Games, his five consecutive gold-medal-winning performances a record. He also won the President's Cup Boxing tournament held in Jakarta in 1996 and the 13th Asian Boxing Championships in 1997.

Hussain’s life-changing moment, however, was sandwiched gloriously in between these wins. It came at the 1988 Seoul Olympics when Pakistan faced the prospect of returning empty-handed after competing in six sports events.

Martín Amarillas of Mexico, Musungay "Serge" Kabongo of Congo and Zoltán Füzesy of Hungary all went down to the might of Hussain and it was only Egerton Marcus of Canada who stopped the Pakistani boxer's quest for gold. The semi-final bout of the middleweight division on Sept 29, 1988, in Seoul did not end the way Hussain Shah had hoped but it would bring about a boxing revolution of sorts in Pakistan and put up the country as a contender on the world stage. His bronze medal and welterweight wrestler Mohammad Bashir’s bronze in Rome 1960, to date remain the only individual medals Pakistan has won at the Olympics.

 Hussain Shah upon his return from Seoul. -Dawn archive photo
Hussain Shah upon his return from Seoul. -Dawn archive photo

Hussain Shah received a warm welcome upon his return to the country after fulfilling his “personal ambition” but was soon forgotten by officials and fans alike. The boxer, who turned professional in 1992, was promised the world by government officials, but after being given the run around moved to Japan where he got a ‘bit more respect’ and was given the task of training local boxers.

I am planning to move to Pakistan in three years. But where will I live?

Hussain Shah said in an interview to Dawn.com in 2010. He was and is still fighting the case for the plot he was awarded by the then Benazir Bhutto government.

A feature film, which hopes to 'repay the debt' owed to Hussain Shah, is now in the works.

“The word I want to drive home is this Pakistani homeless man, he went on to win the Asian middle weight championship, and he was the best boxer in Asia. When he went to the Olympics he didn’t even know what the Olympics were, and he comes back with a bronze medal,” Adnan Sarwar, the co-producer and the lead in the film said earlier this year.


A similar script


Forward 26 years later, there is a similar chorus around Shah Hussain Shah's gold-medal-winning effort at the 2014 Commonwealth Games. There was backroom drama to his participation at the Games as well.

“I have no word to say thank you for your help and so much cooperation. Only for your support today our beloved country Pakistan is on the medals table, otherwise the Pakistan Judo Federation was not interested to send our son to the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow," the senior Shah is reported to have said in an e-mail to the Pakistan Olympic Association, according to the Daily Times.

Hussain Shah has ensured his son gets a fair chance by moving to Japan and raising and training him over there. His son was born in England and, as is evident from his performance in the judo 100kg division, he is good enough to represent any country.

The family chose green, but it is clear from the email that even with the great legacy and world class talent on his side, picking Pakistan and winning for Pakistan may not bring the reward it promises.

Whenever Pakistan wins on the big stage, the natural reaction must be to spare a thought for the countless individuals who have a slipped into oblivion after winning for the country. That is the least any nation can do.