Same time last year, javelin thrower Arshad Nadeem had lost out on a medal at the Olympics but won hearts. This year, he has managed to win both at the Commonwealth Games (CWG), ending a 56-year medal drought in track and field for the country.
Arshad was one of Pakistan’s leading hopes for a medal going into the Games, but without a coach and with a heavily taped throwing elbow due to an injury, odds were against him.
However, the 25-year-old from Mian Channu was resilient and resolute in his aim to bring his country glory.
On Sunday evening when he improved on his personal-best throw of 86.38metres thrice, Arshad’s first effort was 86.61m. He was setting the distance to beat for the rest of the field and it was a question of whether it would be enough for gold.
A foul on his second attempt didn’t matter as Arshad improved his personal best again with a throw of exactly 88m.
Each effort, however, ended with Arshad grimacing in pain and immediately reaching out to feel his right elbow — which he’s been nursing after last year’s Tokyo Olympics where he had finished fifth — but in the lead halfway through the final, he could still afford a smile.
Arshad’s fourth throw landed just beyond the 85-metre mark but with two rounds remaining. He was still in the lead.
It was in the penultimate round when Arshad finally trailed — Peters launching the javelin to 88.64m. Peters celebrated as if it was enough for gold but his joy was short-lived. This was Arshad’s gold to win and he immediately threw over the sport’s ‘holy grail’ mark of 90m.
Doing so, he became only the second Asian to cross that mark after Taiwan’s Chao-Tsun Cheng (91.36m). He also broke the Games record of 88.75m by South African Marius Corbett that stood since 1998.
Peters, who threw over 90 metres to win at the world championship in Oregon, tried with his final throw to overhaul Arshad but it wasn’t to be. He ended with silver with Kenya’s Yego picking up bronze with a best throw of 85.70m.
Arshad, who delivered gold in a record-smashing style after a monster 90.18-metre throw, sank to his knees and prostrated after coming at the top.
That brought Pakistan’s first athletics medal at the Games since 1966 and a first javelin gold for the country, bettering Mohammad Nawaz’s silver at the inaugural edition of the quadrennial multi-sport spectacle in 1954 and Jalal Khan’s second-placed finish in 1958.
It was Pakistan’s second gold in Birmingham and the first was also won with a Games record when Nooh Dasagir Butt triumphed in the +105kg weightlifting competition.
Leaving behind first love for javelin
Arshad's journey from his small village in a wheat and cotton-producing area of Punjab to claiming gold at the CWG has been anything but easy.
With sons and daughters put to work early, 1.87m-tall Arshad had little time for his first love of cricket, while 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.
He 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.
In April 2021, Arshad achieved his personal-best throw of 86.38m during his gold medal run at the Imam Raza Athletics Cup in Iran.
The same year, he became the first Pakistani athlete to qualify directly for the Olympics in decades. He finished fifth in the competition.
He had finished at the same position at last month’s World Championships javelin final in Oregon, becoming the first Pakistani athlete to achieve a top-eight finish.