In late November, Lt Gen (retd) Syed Arif Hasan was elected unopposed as the president of the Pakistan Olympic Association (POA) for yet another four years. According to the official results, 93 votes were cast in favour of Hasan’s panel in a house of 108, with only some women of the Athletic Federation of Pakistan (AFP) boycotting the polls and a few absentees.
Elections to the national Olympics bodies normally take place at the start of an Olympic year — the Tokyo Summer Games will take place next year. The POA raised quite a few eyebrows by defying tradition and conducting its polls two months ahead of time. Surprisingly, neither did provincial Olympic associations go through a similar exercise prior to the POA polls as used to be normal practice.
In any case, this will be Hasan’s fifth consecutive term, having been elected previously in 2004, 2008, 2012 and 2016. Given his immense apparent popularity, observers might be forgiven for thinking that his indispensability stems from his having revolutionised the world of Pakistani sports. So it might be useful to cast an eye on what he has achieved in his 16 years so far at the helm.
LEGACY OF MEDIOCRITY
Hasan was first elected unanimously to the top office of the POA on March 11, 2004 at the behest of then president and army chief Gen Musharraf, who also appointed him as head of the organising committee of the South Asian Games that year. Since his first Olympics in 2004 — where 20 officials accompanied 26 athletes to Athens but from where the entire squad returned empty-handed — Pakistan has not won a single medal at the summer games. In fact, Pakistan has not figured on the Olympic medals table after the 1992 Barcelona Games, in which its hockey team won a bronze. In the 2004 Olympics, the hockey team returned a poor fifth but has now plunged in world rankings to 17th position and has failed to even qualify for the summer games twice in a row.
It was also under Hasan’s leadership that a generation of budding athletes left sports in disgust without ever competing in the National Games that are supposed to be held every two years under the umbrella of the POA. The 2019 National Games that took place in Peshawar last month were held after an incredible gap of seven years. In fact, only four National Games took place in his 16-year stint — in 2007 (Karachi), 2010 (Peshawar), 2012 (Lahore) and 2019 (Peshawar).
Lt Gen (retd) Syed Arif Hasan has been re-elected president of the Pakistan Olympic Association for a fifth consecutive term. Here’s a look at what he has achieved in the past sixteen years
Under Hasan, Pakistan did feature in five Asian Beach Games abroad, but the National Beach Games — which should have served as a criterion for the selection of national players — have failed to see the light of day till now. Instead, private entities have cashed in on the opportunity by arranging a few events at Seaview Beach in a day-long activity more akin to a photo session.
Defending the falling standard of athletes who had returned empty-handed from the Athens Olympics, Hasan had said in 2004 that “It’s the system that needs to be improved.” Unfortunately, it’s not clear how he has managed to change the system in the last 16 years as its supremo.
A nonentity in sports, one of his first acts as POA president in 2004 was announcing a 40-member executive committee comprising his near and dear ones, including 10 vice-presidents, eight associate secretaries but, remarkably, no treasurer. Arif also inducted his lieutenants Col Yayha and Maj Afzal into the POA to retain a firm grip on the association, while another, Col Dean, was brought in the Pakistan Sports Trust (PST), an entity which has now faded into oblivion. All got hefty perks in addition to numerous foreign tours.
The list of people elected recently show that most men and women who have remained part of Hasan’s previous cabinets have been rewarded for toeing his line. A woman who boycotted the polls termed it simply a ‘kitchen cabinet.’
Of course, Hasan has never accepted responsibility for the downslide in sports in the country. His excuse now is that it’s the government and the federations that are responsible for it and that his job is only to ensure Pakistan’s participation in global events.
He has regularly blamed the government instead of bringing reforms in the POA. In fact, he did create new national federations, eg softball, jiujitsu, sepak takraw and tchoukball federations, to bring his friends at the helm and granted them affiliations to the POA in order to maintain his stranglehold on administrative matters. But he failed to penalise any sports federations whose athletes were charged with doping, causing shame to the country. During his first tenure, for example, three weightlifters and a boxer were stripped of their gold medals after testing positive for banned substances during the Islamabad South Asian Games. Later on, another two boxers had to surrender their medals after testing positive for doping at the South Asian Games in Colombo. But no punitive actions were ever taken against the federations that fielded the athletes.
In 2004, Hasan had launched the Hero Pakistani lottery aimed at raising finances with the South Asian Games (SAF) in sight later that year. Initially, people hailed the change of guard as Hasan disbursed millions of rupees earned through lottery to sports federations and athletes — Hasan once told journalists that Rs196m were disbursed to sports federations from Jan 2005 to Nov 18, 2008 from the PST accounts — but the complete details of the PST and its audited accounts were also never made public. And, in the end, the exercise failed miserably to arrest the decline in the country’s sports.
OPPOSING THE NATIONAL SPORTS POLICY
In fact, Arif’s POA has remained at loggerheads with the government that has wanted implementation of the national sports policy. The first-ever sports policy, announced on Feb 15, 2001, was adopted after some amendments in 2005. But Hasan had issues with the policy’s two-term restriction for three key posts in all federations — president, secretary, treasurer. Instead the POA encouraged some of its affiliated federations to amend their constitutions — against International Olympic Committee (IOC) regulations — creating ceremonial posts of chairmen to accommodate those who had already served two terms.
The POA chief also found flaws in the national sports policy and said: “It was formulated unilaterally without taking all stakeholders on board.”
Things came to a head in Hasan’s second tenure (2008-2012) when the armed forces boycotted the National Games held in Lahore in 2012 because they were backing another group against Hasan. The armed forces then used the government-controlled Pakistan Sports Board to organise another National Games (later renamed the Quaid-i-Azam Games) in 2013. This led to the IOC summoning the POA and government representatives to Lausanne in Switzerland and warning Pakistan to settle the row or face suspension from the IOC.
In the best interest of the country’s sports, the government agreed not to force the POA to follow its sports policy. Effectively then the POA operates outside the realm of the country’s sports policies.
One need only glance at the POA’s official website to get an indication of how a culture of mediocrity has been fostered over the past 16 years. There are several anomalies in the POA website, which mainly revolves around pictures of Hasan’s (non-ending) era.
No efforts have been made in the last 16 years to gather information and pictures of legendary yesteryear athletes, nor is there a roll of honour of the National Games. There are a number of typos with respect to dates of international tournaments, some such as the 2014 Incheon Asian Games simply don’t exist on the website and there was no update to the website after the 2010, 2014 or 2018 Commonwealth Games. In addition, some people who died long ago are still shown in the list of office-bearers.
The sports fraternity of the country is fed up with the faces of the sports mafia. It would be wise for the Prime Minister or the President to politely ask Hasan to quit in the same method in which he was appointed. Or the government should swallow the bitter pill of IOC suspension to resurrect sports in the country. If this is not done the nation will keep on facing the same music one term after the other.
The writer is a member of staff
Published in Dawn, EOS, December 15th, 2019