FOR the first time in nearly a decade, Pakistan had serious hopes of an Olympic medal — its first since 1992 and first ever in athletics — when Arshad Nadeem arrived at the Tokyo Olympic Stadium on Saturday for the men’s javelin final. Arshad, Pakistan’s first-ever track-and-field athlete to qualify for the Games, had made history when he reached the final and was aiming to do better than weightlifter Talha Talib who narrowly missed out on bronze earlier in Tokyo.

Arshad eventually finished fifth, meaning Pakistan’s wait for an Olympic medal will go on till the Games in Paris in 2024. Arshad’s and Talha’s performances showed that Pakistan has improved since the 2016 Rio Olympics. But that cannot be put down to any encouragement from Prime Minister Imran Khan, although as a former sportsman he is well aware of the serious deficiencies that beset the sports sector. Arshad and Talha had raised our hopes purely because of their own talent and struggle, with a little help from their respective federations.

Read: What the Talha Talib story says about Pakistan’s one-sport obsession

The countdown to Paris begins now. If Arshad and Talha are to improve on their performances in 2024 and win the Olympic medals Pakistan has been longing for, the work must start now. It must be understood that the Olympics define a stage where those who have been the best or close to the best come out on top. That only happens when there is a system in place — at every level. Sports have regressed in Pakistan, the Tokyo Olympics marking the second successive Games for which the national hockey team — the winner of eight of the country’s 10 Olympic medals — hasn’t been able to qualify. Even in non-Olympic sports like cricket and squash, where Pakistan once used to dominate, performances have deteriorated. Differences between the government, the sports federations and the Olympic Association don’t help and the devolution of sports to the provinces in accordance with the 18th Amendment has created hurdles of its own, leaving only limited powers to the Pakistan Sports Board.

It is imperative for the prime minister to call a meeting of all stakeholders immediately and devise a way forward and work towards building a sports culture in the country. It is about creating an environment to facilitate access to sports. Renovation and development of sports facilities is the first step towards that, one that will help grassroots programmes to flourish. Most importantly, schools must align themselves with the government plan and allocate sufficient time and resources to physical fitness and sports activities. It has to be a multi-tiered structure that propels the talented ones to colleges and universities up to the national level where federations, ideally run by sports professionals, will take them to the next level. A thriving sports culture would not only provide a broader base of athletes but also increase competition and representation, leading to greater chances of winning medals at global events.

Published in Dawn, August 10th, 2021

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