I visit Quetta every year. While meeting one of my old friends Taha there this time I requested him to take me with him to his gymnasium so that I could continue with my exercise routine there. Built on about 1,000 square feet, it is not a very big gymnasium but it has all the basic necessities. And the most amazing part of this gym is Basharat Ahmed, its 76-year-old, very fit and trim owner.
A weight-lifting champion and runner-up at the national level in his heyday, Basharat has also remained an eight-time Balochistan champion. Today, it is amazing to watch the septuagenarian exercise with the strength of a 25-year-old athlete. Exercise and the gym is what keeps him physically and mentally fit.
Born in Quetta on August 11, 1943, Basharat has served the Pakistan Railways for more than 40 years. “I got married in 1959 and got the government job the same year. My first salary was only 66 rupees, but it was a big thing in those days and I was only a teenager,” he says.
Septuagenarian Basharat Ahmed is a former eight-time Balochistan weightlifting champion who runs his own little gym in Quetta now. He says it helps keep him physically and mentally fit to this day
“I have very fond memories of this city. I feel like it has grown with me. At the time, there were hardly two to three families here with motor cars. The valleys of garbage that you see now used to be picnic points during the ’50s and ’60s,” he shares.
Coming back to more recent times, he becomes sad. “I lost my daughter a few days back. She was 45 years old. And I lost my wife 20 years ago. This exercise and this gym is the only thing which keeps me alive. People like you, your friend and a few others who come and visit here and talk to me keeps me active, too. The exercise keeps my mind fresh as well as diverted,” he says.
Trying to change the subject from his family, I ask him about his weightlifting. “I started my weightlifting in the early ’60s. By 1967, I was the Balochistan champion and I remained so for eight consistent years. In between, I was also the runner-up in a few other competitions. There was the national tournament in Lahore in Garhi Shahu in 1966 in which the team from Balochistan ended up as runners-up,” he tells me.
About his choice of sport, Basharat says that he felt that weightlifting was one of the easiest sports. “In Balochistan then there were very few competitors,” he laughs.
About the national championship in Lahore he says that it was the first time for him and his team members to have gone out of Quetta. “We didn’t even have proper sports gear for weightlifting and, as soon as the first member of our team went to lift weights in the snatch category, his underwear tore.
It was a very embarrassing moment for all of us,” he says.
“But it was nice of the organising committee in Lahore to quickly provide us with proper weightlifting gear. And eventually we ended up as runners-up,” he smiles at the memory.
“Now when I see all this discrimination within cities, especially in sports, I always tell people about the incident and how in the early days there were neither any ethnic nor any religious issues, and everyone used to treat each other equally and with respect,” he says.
He talks about how Dr Ghulam Mustafa, the then secretary of the Weightlifting Association of Balochistan, used to only get around 2,000 rupees annually from the government to organise tournaments and to give prizes to the winners. Asked what he used to get after winning, he says that he used to get Rs16 as the winning prize while the runner-up would get nothing. “Sometimes even the winner did not get anything, but we used to be so motivated after winning a tournament that we did not think too much about prizes in those days,” he says.
Basharat still remembers June 11, 1977 very clearly, like it was just yesterday, when he was involved in a road accident. “And on July 3 I was to be part of the Balochistan Championship, which eventually became the last tournament of my life,” he says. “I remember the former prime minister of Pakistan, Zafarullah Khan Jamali, who was member of the Balochistan Assembly then, present at the event as the chief guest,” he adds.
We didn’t even have proper sports gear for weightlifting and, as soon as the first member of our team went to lift weights in the snatch category, his underwear tore. It was a very embarrassing moment for all of us.”
Unfortunately, due to his accident three weeks earlier, Basharat was not fully fit. “I also didn’t feel that motivated in my mind and my wound started bleeding during the event. I could only finish as the runner-up. That was also the end of my sports career,” he says.
Asked what he did after leaving weightlifting, he just shrugs. “Nothing much,” he says. “That is, until I opened this gym in 1999, a few years prior to my retirement from the Railways. The World No. 5 squash player Shahid Zaman also used to come for training in my gym. I remember the great footballer, Col Younas Changezi, who later also became a member of the Balochistan assembly, coming here. It may be a small gym but it has produced many champions who have won titles such as Mr Quetta, Mr Balochistan and Mr Hazara.
“Weightlifting in all these years has not been as big as bodybuilding here. Back in the 1960s, tiny men with small muscles used to win big bodybuilding championships but now your each and every muscle should be extra ordinary,” he says. “That’s why bodybuilders today use steroids. Just look at their huge muscles. It cannot be done naturally,” he says, adding that he would never recommend anyone to go for steroids. “I have seen many bodybuilders whose muscles sag as their bodies shrink or shrivel up after they stop taking the steroids. Yes, you can take proteins as these are supplements and thus not harmful,” he points out.
When asked why he didn’t go for any international events, he says: “To be really honest, we were not interested in international-level tournaments because we knew that we didn’t have the resources and exposure to be able to achieve much there.”
Sadly, all of Basharat’s peers, who used to lift weights with him, are no longer around. “They have passed away,” he says. “And though my own children were not into weightlifting, they do have gold medals in shot put and cycling.”
The writer tweets @Mujtabatweets
Published in Dawn, EOS, July 7th, 2019