With hope and a sense of nervous anticipation, millions of Pakistanis will be looking towards one man to end the country's 29-year medal drought at the Olympics on Saturday: Arshad Nadeem.
On Wednesday, the man from Mian Channu kept the country's flailing hopes of a maiden medal at the Tokyo Olympics alive as he qualified for the final of the men's javelin with a throw of 85.16 metres.
Arshad's throw was the third-best of the day behind India's Neeraj Chopra (86.65m) and world leader Germany's Johannes Vetter (85.64m).
The strapping 24-year-old thrower from Khanewal finished above Germany's Julian Weber and Czech Republic's Jakub Vadlejch to win his group and a place in the medal round — a performance that got his coach out of his seat applauding.
Arshad's performance was quick to garner the attention of netizens; his name remained firmly among the top trends on Twitter in Pakistan for more than a day as fellow countrymen pinned their hopes on the athlete to bring home a gold medal in Saturday's final.
But whether he takes the crown in the final or not, Arshad has already made history. He is the country’s first track-and-field athlete to qualify directly for the Olympics and the first Pakistani to qualify for the final of any track-and-field event at the Games.
Arshad has a personal-best throw of 86.38m, which he achieved in April during his gold medal run at the Imam Raza Athletics Cup in Iran.
But it hasn't been an easy path for 1.87m-tall Arshad, who comes from a village in a wheat and cotton-producing area of Punjab.
With sons and daughters put to work early, he had little time for his first love, cricket, and facilities and proper training were scarce.
Despite the difficulties, Arshad shone as an all-rounder. “I was good,” he said in an interview earlier this year.
Mian Channu’s Arshad 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 told Dawn EOS last year. “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.”
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, 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 recalled.
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 in 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 recalled 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 then 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.