KARACHI: Usman Khan’s qualification to this year’s Tokyo Games probably hadn’t garnered as much attention as the name of the horse that made him the first Pakistani equestrian to qualify for the Olympics.

Over the last few days, Indian media has been raising hell over Usman’s horse, which will compete at the Olympics, being named Azad Kashmir. Indian Olympic officials are reportedly seeking legal advice on whether the name represents a political statement.

All of that hasn’t affected Usman though. In fact, it helped him. He needs publicity and any sort of it will do. After all, he needs sponsors to take him and Azad Kashmir to the Olympics.

“It’s a trivial issue really,” Usman remarked in a telephone interview with Dawn.

“My intentions are very clear. The horse wasn’t named in response to the Indian lockdown of Kashmir,” he added, referring to the military lockdown that India has imposed since August last year in the part of Kashmir it occupies.

“But anyways, if the name of the horse is highlighting the plight of Kashmiris, I don’t mind. I’m looking for sponsors to bear the cost of taking me and Azad Kashmir to the Olympics and this will only help our cause.”

The Australia-based Usman clarified that the horse’s name was registered in April last year, “quite some time before the lockdown”.

“The original name of the horse was Here to Stay but after purchasing it, I renamed it to Azad Kashmir as I’ve done with most of the horses in my stable. The name change alone costs around US$1000 and it should fit the criteria set by international and local bodies. The horses I own are all named after the beautiful northern areas of Pakistan. Giving them those names helps me foster that connection I have with my motherland.”

That’s probably not how the Indian officials are looking at it, especially with Azad Kashmir. Pakistan and India have fought two wars over Kashmir since gaining independence in 1947.

“If India takes up the complaint with the International Olympic Committee (IOC), we will respond through the Pakistan Olympic Association (POA) and the foreign office,” said Usman. “The name of the horse has been approved by the International Equestrian Federation (FEI) and has already competed in events with that name, including those which took us to the Olympics.

“My naming the horse wouldn’t give Kashmir independence, would it?” he questioned. “It really is a non-issue. There are many horses in the FEI list who are named after Kashmir.”

THE NOON LINK

While Usman is the first Pakistan’s equestrian to qualify for the Olympics, he isn’t the first to have made it till there.

The late Nadeem Noon, a US-based Pakistani rider, was given a wildcard entry to the 2004 Olympics in Athens but wasn’t able to compete since his horse got injured.

“Nadeem was the first Pakistani rider to do this,” said Usman. “He was a much, much better competitor than me. I never got the opportunity to meet him but spoke a couple of times with him. During our conversations, he never spoke about the Olympics or the wildcard entry. It was only when I spoke with the FEI did I learn about Nadeem’s feats.”

Nadeem, who died in November 2015, was a highly-respected figure in the United States Eventing Association (USEA). Usman feels it’s his responsibility to carry Nadeem’s baton forward.

“He’s my inspiration,” Usman told. “Every time I compete, I carry his name on my body vest. Taking his name to the Olympics would give me some fulfilment.”

The 38-year-old Usman’s road to the Olympics has been one of hard falls, setbacks and crippling investment.

“It’s taken me 15 years to get here, to achieve that goal of reaching the Olympics,” he said. “I’ve invested my life and resources to get to Olympics and I really want to go to Tokyo and fly the flag for Pakistan at a major international sporting event.”

He could’ve done that earlier. Usman qualified for both the 2014 and the 2018 Asian Games but on both occasions, he couldn’t get the funding required to fly his horse Al-Buraq to those events.

“It takes a huge toll on the pocket just to qualify for the events and at the end you’re just hoping for some sponsor to come in,” Usman said.

He’s hopeful the same wouldn’t happen this time around. “I’ve spent millions just to qualify for the Olympics and I hope there is no fresh heartbreak this time for me.”

No heartbreak for Usman will put Pakistan on the world equestrian map, and maybe, pave the path for others to follow the road he’s taken; the high-risk road not many in Pakistan would’ve envisaged.

Published in Dawn, February 9th, 2020