Arshad Nadeem loses Olympic medal, but wins hearts

Published August 8, 2021
TOKYO: Arshad Nadeem competes in the men’s javelin throw final at the 2020 Summer Olympics on Saturday. — Reuters
TOKYO: Arshad Nadeem competes in the men’s javelin throw final at the 2020 Summer Olympics on Saturday. — Reuters

TOKYO: There was a lot of pressure on Arshad Nadeem. Heaps of it. There was also the weight of history.

There were hope and expectation in equal measure as Arshad stepped into the Olympic Stadium on Saturday, the 24-year-old javelin thrower having become the first athlete from Pakistan to qualify for the Olympics and the first to reach a track-and-field final.

Now, it was time for him to become the first to win a medal for Pakistan in any sporting discipline since 1992. The first target for Arshad was to stay in the top eight among 12 competitors after the first three attempts.

But the pressure had been ratcheted up even before his first throw. India’s Neeraj Chopra, the 23-year-old who is idolised by Arshad and the eventual gold medallist, had started off with an 87.03-metre throw to set the bar for gold.

Javelin thrower ends up on the fifth position

Arshad managed 82.40m with his first throw before he had a foul on his second. Chopra had raised the bar at the top with a throw of 87.58m in his second attempt.

By the time Arshad returned for his third throw, he was down at the ninth spot. He needed to better 83m to be among the eight who would get three more attempts.

In an attempt to urge him on, his coach Fayyaz Hussain Bokhari waved the Pakistan flag in the stands. Cheeks puffing as he approached his run-up, Arshad made sure there was no doubt that he would be among the top eight. A throw of 84.62m took him up to fourth, behind Germany’s Julian Weber who had reached 85.30m with his first attempt.

In the midst of all that, Weber’s compatriot Johannes Vetter — a favourite to win after producing seven throws of over 90m between April and June, including season’s best of 96.29m — failed to make the top eight.

Arshad tried to close in on the medal positions but could only manage 82.91m in his fourth throw and soon he was bumped down to fifth as the Czech Republic’s Jakub Vadlejch moved into second with 86.67m, ahead of compatriot and former world champion Vitezslav Vesely (85.44m).

Now, it was Vesely’s mark which Arshad had to beat for a medal. He couldn’t come close to it with his fifth throw of 81.98m and this meant the pressure went up another notch as he approached his final throw.

Bokhari still had the Pakistan flag draped around his shoulders, expecting a moment of brilliance from Arshad. It didn’t come, however, with Arshad botching up his final attempt and finishing with a foul.

He might not have ended up on the podium but his fifth-place finish does speak volumes about how Arshad came from the small village of Mian Channu in Khanewal and into the Olympic spotlight.

His father, a mason, and family members along with other relatives and fellow villagers had gathered around a television screen at his home to watch the final.

“I could have done better but I will try next time,” Arshad said afterwards. “This is part of sport.”

Arshad won his first international medal at the South Asian Games in 2016, when he got a bronze, and it was followed by bronze medals at both the 2016 Asian Junior Athletics Championships and the 2017 Islamic Solidarity Games. He made it to the Olympics on the back of a gold medal-winning performance at the South Asian Games in 2019, when Chopra was out, injured.

Arshad’s preparations for the Games were hit by the Covid-19 pandemic as he was unable to travel to Europe for training. Instead he had to make do with limited infrastructure and facilities in the country, making his achievement even more special.

Published in Dawn, August 8th, 2021

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