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September 09, 2018


Like most things in life, there can be two narratives about how Pakistan fared at the recently concluded Asian Games. One, that among the 37 nations that featured on the medals table, Pakistan finished 34th, with four medals — all bronze — just ahead of Afghanistan, Myanmar and Syria. Two, that Pakistan finished ahead of nine other nations as well that could not win any medal at all. They are, in no particular order, Palestine, Yemen, Sri Lanka, Oman, the Maldives, Bangladesh, Bhutan, East Timor and Brunei. There is indeed a third option, but that is a ‘choice’ rather than a ‘narrative’: ignore it all and have fun elsewhere, and, in that case, you are naturally wasting your time reading this. Don’t!

So for those of you who are still here, here is something to decide which side of the divide you happen to be or want to be. If you are bitten by the superbug of neo-patriotism (yes, that is a term; not a new coinage) and thereby suffering from myopic ultra-nationalism that takes you so close to the trees that you end up losing sight of the forest, the latter of the two narratives would suit you like that magical match made in heaven.

An extension of the narrative will include a soothing, calming, cheering belief that, technically, we ended up at the ‘top’ of the ‘bottom quarter’ of the pack; that we should never say never; that we should all have an approach akin to the cornered tigers; that the four bronze will soon turn into four gold; that the four gold will subsequently turn into 40; and that before we know it, we will be vying, if not occupying, the top slot.

Led by the hockey team, the performance of the national contingent at the Asian Games was dismal, but not unexpected. There are reasons why things are how they are

And, all this will happen because we are Pakistanis, you know. For God’s sake, who needs another argument beyond that? Enemies, perhaps? Unpatriotic, ungrateful, insiders hand-in-glove with the enemy, traitors deserving of mob lynching … and all that blah blah blah. If you believe in this narrative, you are naturally wasting your time reading this. Don’t!

So for those of you who are still here for good or bad, valid or invalid reasons, here is a rundown that is high on patriotism while having nothing to do with neo-patriotism. And here is the opening statement; except cricket, the national sports scene is doomed. The rest is just the nitty-gritty of it. Years and years and years of relentless mismanagement have brought us to a point where we stand all but desensitised. We don’t even feel the pain of losing. We, including our sportspersons, are just happy by the at-least-we-were-there component of sports competitions.

That is a pathetic mindset for a nation that was the World Champion in snooker, cricket, hockey and squash, and, if you might remember, didn’t do too bad in the world of bridge.

The problem remains a lack of system that is not an issue when individual talent saves its skin, but stands denuded the moment there is time for replacement and replenishment. The neo-patriotic narrative remains so heavily laced with rhetoric about the “abundance of talent among Pakistanis” that it leaves no space for anyone to suggest that we need systems in place to harness that talent, and, before we do that, to evaluate that talent.

Years and years and years of relentless mismanagement have brought us to a point where we stand all but desensitised. We don’t even feel the pain of losing.

Starting from Pakistan Hockey Federation (PHF), we have bodies supposedly governing the affairs of various sports, but they remain part of the problem, if not the problem itself. Even when government heads poke their lofty noses into the affairs of these federations and associations, they start, more often than not, with cricket instead of taking a look at what is ailing the national sports scene at large. The net result is that instead of producing giants, sports bosses are churning out pygmies and using them as scapegoats to continue enjoying the goodies themselves.

Had the decline been confined to one area, we could have called it bad performance. Had it been so bad in a few games, we could have called it a coincidence. But the massive decline across the board is no coincidence. And, by the way, what cricket is going through today is not much different from what, say, hockey or squash, went through in the days gone by. It is surviving; not thriving by any means, but that is for another day.

How much worse can it get? If we can keep the proverbial ostrich in us at bay and somehow take our heads out of the sand of patriotism in which it has been buried since long, it is not too difficult to see that we have not hit the plateau yet. The slide continues and that means there is bound to be more embarrassments ahead unless somebody somewhere does something a little more practical than merely wrapping themselves up in the national flag and going all gaga over it. We have to protect the sanctity of the flag. The flag on its own is not going to save us.

The same applies to most areas of our national existence. If we can do it in sports, we just might feel encouraged to do it elsewhere as well. But who will set the ball rolling? When? How? For how long? Questions galore.

Published in Dawn, EOS, September 9th, 2018