For a country with a population exceeding 200 million, Pakistan has a bleak record in the Olympics, generally considered the benchmark to measure a country’s prowess in the sporting arena. From the 17 Olympic Games it has participated in so far, the country has a total of only 10 medals to show for its efforts, the last of which came in 1992. Since then, Pakistan has held the unenviable record of being the most populous nation at each of the six Olympic Games not to win a medal.

Traditionally, hockey has been the saving grace for the country. Eight of the 10 medals were won by the great hockey teams of the past, including three golds in 1960, 1968 and 1984. The recent decline of the sport in the country, however, left the national team unable to qualify for the 2016 Olympics in Rio as well as for the next Olympics in Tokyo. The absence of a 23-member hockey squad meant Pakistan fielded its smallest ever Olympic contingent in 2016, comprising of a mere seven athletes.

In these circumstances, expectations of Pakistan winning a medal have dwindled gradually. After all, there have only ever been two individuals to win a medal for Pakistan — wrestler Mohammad Bashir in Rome 1960 and boxer Hussain Shah in Seoul 1988. But the emergence of one athlete has changed the bleak situation and given the country its first hopes of an Olympic medal in almost 30 years.

This is his story.

Exceptional athlete

Mian Channu’s Arshad Nadeem was an exceptionally versatile athlete in his early school years. Though he dabbled in all the sports on offer in his school — cricket, badminton, football and athletics — his passion was cricket and he soon found himself playing it at district-level tape-ball tournaments.

Upon entering grade seven in school, Arshad caught the eye of Rasheed Ahmad Saqi during an athletics competition. “One day, I received a letter in school and thought I’d secured a job,” he says. “It was from Rasheed sahib. He had asked me to meet him, and soon took me under his apprenticeship. He had a history of developing sportspeople in the division and I was very proud to be training under him.”

Javelin thrower Arshad Nadeem has become the first Pakistani athlete in decades to qualify directly for the Olympics. His story is nothing less than inspiring

But after a couple of years, Arshad had to choose between cricket and athletics. The third oldest among five brothers, Arshad took inspiration from his elder brothers, both of whom were athletes at the divisional level, and decided to pursue athletics after a thorough discussion with his coach. “Leaving cricket behind was not easy, but it turned out to be one of the best decisions of my life. My father was a labourer, we didn’t have the required resources or contacts to make it pro in cricket. My school’s PT [physical training] teachers Ajmal and Zafar looked after me well and helped me adjust to the change.”

Arshad then pursued shot-put and discus and javelin throw in athletics. But in the coming years, he also dropped discus and shot-put and began to focus solely on javelin. Gold medals in successive Punjab Youth Festivals and an inter-board meet propelled him on to the national stage, bringing offers from all the leading domestic athletics teams, including Army, Air Force and Wapda.

The 2015 National Championships were just around the corner, so Arshad had to decide quickly. “Rasheed sahib had been a father figure to me, he had always helped me with key decisions. Naturally, I went to him to help me decide. However, before we had decided, the championships were delayed. The inter-department championships of Wapda were coming up next and I decided to appear in their trials,” Arshad says.

The gradual rise

In the Wapda trials, Arshad managed a throw of 56m. The scouts on duty dismissed him, claiming he would never be a 60m+ athlete. But one man saw potential in him and decided to take him on in the training camp for the championships. Within a month, Arshad had won gold in the inter-department championship with a throw of 69m, and the man who had inducted him into the camp, Fiaz Hussain Bokhari, became his permanent coach.

At the rescheduled National Championships, representing Wapda, Arshad was fifth going into his final throw, but broke the 70m barrier for the first time on his last try. The 70m distance was widely regarded as good enough for international selection then and, indeed, it proved a distance too great for the other competitors. At 18, Arshad was the national champion and had booked his place in the South Asian Games (SAG) 2016 squad. In the wake of this victory, Wapda offered him a permanent job.

The trip to Guwahati, India, for SAG 2016 provided Arshad with his first exposure of international competition, and his first meeting with Neeraj Chopra, then an 18-year-old upcoming athlete like Arshad himself. The competition was close, Chopra winning gold in a games record distance, while Arshad was pipped to the silver medal by Sri Lankan Sumeda Ranasinghe on the final round of throws. However, it was an extremely successful trip for him, and he returned home with a bronze medal and a new national record of 78.33m.

Two more bronze medals followed in the 2016 Asian Junior Athletics Championships in Vietnam and the 2017 Islamic Solidarity Games in Azerbaijan. At the 2018 Commonwealth Games in Australia, Arshad broke his own national record in the qualifying round, but injured himself in the process. He recalls the tournament with a tinge of sadness. “I was in good form. I was throwing 80m plus in training. In qualifying, I was ahead of Neeraj and the Indian coaching staff looked scared. But I wasn’t able to perform to my maximum in the final due to the injury.”

After a few months, however, Arshad was back on the podium with a bronze in the 2018 Asian Games held in Jakarta, improving the national record to 80.75m in the process. Chopra won gold in both the Commonwealth and Asian Games.

The golden ticket

Arshad Nadeem was already a four-time national champion and had broken the national record three times, but 2019 proved to be the most successful year in his career. The 23-year-old had the honour of being the sole representative of Pakistan at the World Athletics Championships in Doha, where he narrowly missed out on qualification to the final despite breaking the national record with an 81.52m throw. At the 33rd National Games a month later, he defended his title with another national record, this time managing 83.65m.

Arshad went into the 2019 South Asian Games in Kathmandu, Nepal as the overwhelming favourite because of an injury to Chopra. And he delivered. On December 7, 2019, history unfolded as Arshad smashed the national record with a throw of 86.29m, clinching gold and eclipsing Chopra’s games record set in 2016 by four meters. The distance was well over the direct qualification mark of 85m for the 2020 Olympics, making him the first Pakistani athlete to qualify directly for the Olympics in decades.

The significance of that throw goes beyond mere Olympic qualification. The fact that he achieved the direct qualification mark for an edition when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and World Athletics had raised the standards significantly to reduce the number of direct qualifiers, speaks volumes of the natural talent Arshad possesses. For context, the distances of the three medalists from Rio 2016 were 90.30m, 88.24m and 85.38m, showcasing both the difficulty level of the 85m qualification mark and the impressiveness of Arshad’s throw. In grim times, one performance has elevated him to an outside medal hopeful for Pakistan.

The impact of coronavirus

To aid his preparations for Tokyo 2020, the Athletics Federation of Pakistan (AFP) sent Arshad on a two-month training period to Nanjing, China, a stint that was ultimately cut short due to the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic. The federation had also arranged for Arshad to be sent to Turkey and Kuortane, Finland, which houses a world-renowned centre for athletics training, specialising in javelin throwing. But these plans have also been postponed given the prevalent conditions. The Olympics, too, have been delayed and will now take place in 2021.

Arshad explains how the Covid-19 pandemic has affected his plans for the Olympics. “This lockdown has affected my training, as I don’t have the facilities to train at home. I’m doing my best to keep myself fit, but formal training will only resume once the lockdown is lifted. I am very grateful to AFP president [Maj Gen (retd)] Akram Sahi, who’s left no stone unturned to help my preparations for Tokyo. And I am optimistic that, once this is over, I will be able to continue on the tour to Finland.

He’s also counting on the support from his fellow country folk. “All my success has been built around the hard work of my coaches and the prayers of my parents and fellow Pakistanis. I know athletics is not as popular as cricket, but hopefully more people will find out about my qualification for the Olympics and, maybe, their prayers will propel me to a good performance next year.”

The writer tweets @tahagoheer

Published in Dawn, EOS, July 19th, 2020

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