HAIDER Ali is in the habit of making history. Already Pakistan’s only medallist at the Paralympics, he won the country’s first gold in Tokyo on Friday. Winning the discus throw event, and by some margin, speaks volumes about how 36-year-old Haider, who suffers from cerebral palsy, has kept himself in top form despite limited resources. It’s a story of grit and determination; of an unflinching quest for gold ultimately fulfilled. It was also remarkably the first time he was taking part in the discus event at the Paralympics, although he had won in the same event at the Asian Para-Athletics Championships in 2018. Haider had previously won the silver and bronze medals in the long jump events in the Paralympic Games of 2008 and 2016. Yet, this accomplished athlete who is a role model for his differently abled countrymen, would not have made it to Tokyo had it not been for the intervention of the Punjab sports minister, who arranged for flight tickets for Pakistan’s Paralympic contingent. It was a move that not only made Haider a national hero but that also saw Pakistan’s flag raised and the national anthem resonate around the Tokyo Olympic Stadium.
The last-minute flight tickets show where the country’s sporting priorities lie. Sadly, Pakistan’s para-athletes are way down the list. For all countries, the Olympics and Paralympic Games are a matter of great prestige. They use sports as a means to project soft power. These events run on a four-year cycle, which means achievements have immense magnitude. Haider’s achievement should lead to a change in mindset. In a country where differently abled people are left to their fate, let alone encouraged to take part in sports, this should be a watershed moment. It should force the government to provide facilities for them and focus on their needs including giving them specialised coaches. Haider said he didn’t want to remain the only Pakistani Paralympic gold medallist. His dream will only come true if those at the top understand what needs to be done.
Published in Dawn, September 6th, 2021