Mohammed Rafiq with one of his students at the Pakistan Gymnastics Club | Photos by the writer
Mohammed Rafiq with one of his students at the Pakistan Gymnastics Club | Photos by the writer

As evening falls in Karachi, a few agile young men can be spotted heading towards Gabol Park near the famous Cheel Chowk in Lyari. There, under the orange glow of the street lights, you find more like them practicing gymnastics on cotton mattresses.

They belong to the Mujahid Memorial Gymnastics Club, which was established in 1988 by Liaquat Shan, a well-known national gymnast of Lyari. The Club is in a poor condition these days. It has no electricity, no water and not even a boundary wall. Spread on almost 500 square yards, it does not even have an even surface to practice on. The cemented floor is damaged and dusty, with trash flying all around. Whatever gymnastics equipment it had has been stolen and sold off by drug addicts in the area.

The club does not receive any funding from the provincial sports department or the Pakistan Sports Board (PSB). Unlike equipment, facilities and funds, however, there is no shortage of gymnasts at the club. “We are here to provide training to the poor kids of Lyari,” says Shabbir Hussain, a 42-year-old senior gymnast from Lyari. “And we are doing it without taking any fees from them.”

In 1997, when he was only 17, Shabbir was a top gymnast of Sindh, having won all competitions in the Sindh Games. “I started learning gymnastics at this very club the year it was set up in 1988,” he says.

The future of hundreds of gymnastics enthusiasts in Pakistan remains bleak due to a lack of investment in proper infrastructure as well as infighting among sports administrators

“It won’t be wrong to call Lyari a sports lovers’ arena. There are footballers, boxers, and gymnasts here. Still, the majority of the population here is economically weak,” says Shabbir. “I, too, belong to a lower class family. Even today, my only source of income is gymnastics. I am a sports teacher at a private school where I provide gymnastics training to children. For this I am paid a meagre Rs18,000 a month, which is insufficient to live on,” he says.

“Sadly, there are no benefits and no great source of income for gymnasts in Pakistan,” he says, adding that he doesn’t have any other job, in the government or in the private sector.

“Meanwhile, the Sindh Gymnastics Association and the provincial sports department don’t seem to appreciate the gymnasts who sacrifice their entire life for sports but don’t get any rewards or even token money as encouragement,” he adds.

“And so there is the Mujahid Memorial Gymnastics Club and so many others like it working under the open sky. The place comes under the Karachi Metropolitan Corporation, which also doesn’t seem to be bothered with the condition it has been left in,” he says.

There was a time when there were as many as 12 gymnastics clubs in Lyari, but only four of them are still functioning — the Lyari Gymnastics Club, situated near the Lyari General Hospital, the Green Flag Gymnastics Club in Singolane, the Pakistan Gymnastics Club in Kharadar and the Mujahid Memorial Gymnastics Club.

“They may be open but all these clubs are in a very poor state,” says Mohammed Tahir, another senior, 39-year-old gymnast. “I am running the Green Flag Gymnastics Club. Whatever equipment we have here is damaged. The mattresses are tattered and our electricity was disconnected long ago. We rent generator electricity from a local person for 3,000 to 4,000 rupees per month.”

Tahir also has financial issues. “I don’t have a regular job, gymnastics is my only source of income. I am a personal trainer to children in Defence Housing Authority, for which I charge 3,000 or 4,000 rupees per client. This is how I am generating around 40,000 rupees a month. Still, it is not enough to make ends meet,” he says.

Unlike Mujahid Memorial, the Green Flag Gymnastics Club charges its members. The admission fees for adults is Rs1,000 and for children it is Rs500 each, along with a monthly fee of Rs500 for adults and Rs300 for children. “And still these earnings are insufficient as the clubs running expenses are far more than that,” says Tahir.

The dark future of gymnastics in Pakistan
The dark future of gymnastics in Pakistan

Not a single one of the gymnastics clubs have any registration or affiliation with the Sindh Gymnastics Association (SGA) or the Pakistan Gymnastic Federation (PGF).

Fifty-four-year-old Mohammed Rafiq is another veteran gymnast, who heads the Pakistan Gymnastics Club. “I used to represent Pakistan Railways from 1991 to 1996 on a contractual basis, as I was not given any permanent job in any government or private organisation,” he says.

According to Rafiq, the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) provides annual grants amounting to Rs384 million to PSB for the development of gymnastics in Pakistan but, unfortunately, this grant money has not reached the gymnastics clubs. This could also be because none of them are registered or affiliated with the SGA and PGF. Surprisingly, both of these bodies do not have any record of any gymnastics clubs anywhere in the country.

Another issue is that there are now two factions of the PGF in the country. “With most gymnastics clubs closed down due to shortage of funds, the sport is on a ventilator in Pakistan,” says former gymnast Mohammed Iqbal, who himself represents one of the two factions.

“Before 2014, when there was just one PGF, Pakistan won several medals in gymnastics in many Asian competitions. But the divisions and political rifts have put the future of the gymnasts in the dark,” he says, adding that one faction belongs to Lt Gen (Retd) Syed Arif Hasan, who also heads the Pakistan Olympic Association (POA), and the other to Maj Gen (Retd) Mohammed Akram Sahi.

“Now the POA recognises one faction and the PSB sees the other as the authentic body,” says Iqbal. He adds that Indian gymnasts usually qualify for the Olympics but unfortunately Pakistan is out of the race.

Iqbal also reveals that earlier they used to be entitled to around six or seven million rupees by the PSB annually, for holding gymnastics events. “And then half of that money would be deducted as a bribe by officials of the PSB and the Sindh Sports Board,” he says.

The president of PGF’s Arif Hasan Group, Ahmed Ali Rajput, says that they have organised many national gymnastics championships in 2021 in Gujranwala. “And now we will organise an inter-provincial championship in July or August of this year. We have an affiliation with FIG and we are the real elected body of the PGF. Our federation is working for the betterment of gymnastics in Pakistan,” he claims.

When asked why there were no gymnastics clubs registered with the PGF, Rajput replies that it is because the PSB is not providing them with the needed money. “We don’t have money. If we had sufficient funding, why won’t we promote gymnastics in Pakistan? And clubs are the basis for talent,” he says.

“Unprofessional and non-technical people have occupied important posts within the PGF and provincial bodies,” says Ustad Imdad Hussain, one more veteran gymnast, aged 50. Imdad has three gold medals and two bronze medals from the 1988 Sindh Games that were held in Karachi. He also has a gold medal from the 1990 National Games that were held in Peshawar. He represented Pakistan in the South Asian Games in 1993 and has medals from events held in Dubai, Iran, Bangladesh and many other countries.

“I have represented several departments, too, including the Pakistan Railways, Police, etc. At the time I used to be paid 800 to 900 rupees per appearance. Unfortunately, now the young gymnasts feel disheartened due to the negligence and rude attitude of the federation and the sports departments. How can a gymnast survive long term without any source of income or gymnastic facilities?” he asks.

“These days, most gymnasts belong to Wapda [Water and Power Development Authority] and the Pakistan Army, while the clubs, which work at the grassroots, are completely ignored as are most good gymnasts from Sindh, Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab. There is no scope for fresh talent here,” he says.

The writer is a freelance journalist based in Karachi.

He tweets @Zafar_Khan5

Published in Dawn, EOS, April 10th, 2022

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