FOR about 30 minutes at the Tokyo Olympics weightlifting competition last week, Talha Talib remained in the podium places, on the brink of ending Pakistan’s 29-year drought for a Games medal and an even longer wait for one in an individual sport. It was in Seoul 1988 when boxer Hussain Shah won only the country’s second medal in an individual sport when he picked up the bronze, following wrestler Mohammad Bashir’s bronze in 1960. Talha seemed poised to become the third but his eventual fifth-place finish started a debate, one that arises each time the Olympics come around and dies down soon after: what will it take for Pakistan to be successful at the Olympics? It leads to questions about the government’s role, especially that of the Pakistan Sports Board. It leads to questions about the role of the Pakistan Olympic Association. After Talha’s performance, a blame game ensued between the POA and PSB. The former claimed its job is to promote the Olympic charter in Pakistan while it’s the latter’s job to fund and develop sport. The PSB’s decision to return Rs440m of unspent funds to the government at the end of this financial year especially came under fire.
Talha’s performance was a bright spot at a so far dismal Olympics for Pakistan. And it came in the tenure of a government led by a former sportsman. If sports in the country aren’t reformed during Prime Minister Imran Khan’s term, one wonders if it will happen at all. The government’s role in sports development needs to be reassessed. The various sports federations which form the POA need to be streamlined; reforms need to be brought in so that funding can be accessed without the government worrying whether it will actually reach the athletes. It is ironic that Talha was at the Olympics without his coach and was instead accompanied by the weightlifting federation president. India’s Olympic Association has moved towards financial independence from the government and has brought in new revenue streams. It has worked on securing greater funding from the International Olympic Committee’s solidarity plan to develop athletes, coaches and teams. It even makes public its audit; something neither the POA nor the sports federations here do. Pakistan’s Olympic revival will only happen if professionals are brought in to run sports federations, including the POA and PSB, instead of retired personnel from the army and other institutions as well as politicians who have a tendency to overstay their welcome.
Published in Dawn, August 1st, 2021