KARACHI: The man who once wanted to be a cricketer has taken the place that was once reserved for batters and bowlers, both current and former. In cricket-crazed Pakistan, that’s a testament to how far Arshad Nadeem has come.
The javelin thrower is a trailblazer, a beacon of hope for the future of athletics in Pakistan. Here on Wednesday, Arshad was inspiring the next generation as the chief guest at the sports function of a local school. Once, it was cricket greats — occasionally hockey and squash legends — who used to grace occasions like these.
Demand for a piece of Arshad has soared in the last couple of years, notably due to his scintillating performances at global events; the latest seeing him take the silver medal at last month’s World Athletics Championships in Budapest.
Preparing for the upcoming Asian Games in the Chinese city of Hangzhou, he had to make time from his busy schedule to fulfil this commitment. He arrived in Karachi from Lahore late on Tuesday night and was flew back on Wednesday evening.
“If you want to win gold, you have to train for it,” Arshad told Dawn in an interview, just after arriving here on Tuesday night. “But, I believe the preparations are coming along well and [God-willing] I will win the Asian gold.”
The world championships marked Arshad’s return to the international stage after almost a year out, with most of that time spent rehabilitating after his elbow surgery and then nursing his knee injury. “I’ve healed properly now,” he said, “I’m back to full fitness.”
Arshad, 26, won bronze at the last edition of the Games in 2018 and knows he needs every ounce of effort in Hangzhou, where he renews his rivalry with India’s Olympic and world champion Neeraj Chopra. Chopra won gold in Budapest with a throw just 35 centimetres better than Arshad.
“It’s a very small distance that I’ve to make,” said Arshad, who unlike Chopra is a member of the 90-metre club after his gold-clinching throw at last year’s Commonwealth Games where the Indian didn’t participate.
Chopra might have not crossed 90 metres in his career but he still raises the roof wherever he participates. He’s a fast starter, setting the benchmark with his first couple of throws in finals for the others to beat. Arshad, on the other hand, usually builds into the contest. He improves throw by throw, so at times he’s the one playing catch-up.
“He [Chopra] has his ways of winning events,” said Arshad. “Initially, I used to be nervy and all but now I’ve competed against him quite a lot so it’s not the same. I’ll [hopefully] win gold in Hangzhou in my own way.”
But Arshad admits he not only has to overcome his rivals but also other adversities to win gold at the Asian Games. He will be competing in Hangzhou without coach Salman Iqbal, who will not be part of the Games due to an accreditation issue.
“Of course it has an impact,” said Arshad, who competed at last year’s Commonwealth Games without his coach and still managed a monster throw of 90.18 metres. “The coach you’re training with knows you’re feeling, has an idea of what needs to be done, especially during competition. You look at my rivals, they all not only have a coach alongside them but also a doctor and physiotherapist. But, nevertheless, I’ll do my best to win gold.”
Winning gold at the Asian Games, where the javelin final is scheduled for Oct 4, will help Arshad set a marker for next year’s Olympics in Paris. But there remain a number of events on the calendar in the intervening months; meets that could potentially shape a gold tilt for Arshad in the French capital.
“There are plans for me to take part in a couple of Diamond League meetings before the Olympics,” informed Arshad, noting that it all depended on funding and logistics. “But right now, I’m not thinking that far. The focus right now is fully on the Asian Games.”
Arshad is the first track and field star from the country in decades to win global recognition. He’s made history with every participation — from the Olympics to the World championships. But he says there is a lot to be done to enable the future generations to compete at the highest level.
“I’ve reached where I have despite having no access to state-of-art grounds or training facilities,” he noted. “But in this day and age, you have to provide world class facilities to develop athletes as the competition is getting tougher and tougher. You can’t produce another Arshad without giving them those facilities.”
Published in Dawn, September 21st, 2023