How to End Our Olympic Woes – Practical Solutions

We often hear that the government should revive sporting culture in Pakistan. This statement does not represent our past accurately because we never really had a world-beating sporting culture other than for Cricket, Hockey, Kabaddi, Squash (limited to a tiny region, though) and Volleyball (mostly played in villages and lacks required professionalism). Since the article is about Olympics so we can leave Cricket, Kabbadi and Squash aside.

In our whole history of 74 years, the country has managed to win just 3 Olympic gold medals and that too in just one sport – Hockey. So, where does the problem lie? In our overall economy, lack of planning by successive governments, the Pakistan Olympic Committee (POC) and federal and provincial sports boards. People say that housing societies have engulfed grounds so we cannot produce good sportsmen. That could be true to some extent but winning Olympics’ medals requires more than just grassy grounds. We can agree that POC and sports boards are not provided with enough funds but the question is that are those funds so insignificant that athletes competing at the Olympics have to prepare on their own? Absolutely not.

It is a known fact that the country does not have enough sports grounds and other facilities and the government or sports’ governing bodies have not shown any real interest in changing that either. Since most of the sports included in the Olympic Games are expensive for the majority of the people, the government’s support becomes even more crucial. The gears used by top professionals in different sports could cost hundreds, if not thousands of dollars. Even shoes worn by professional sportsmen are out of the reach of an ordinary person in the country. Then comes the diet. Different sports like weightlifting, wrestling, running, cycling etc. require a proper diet and everyone is not lucky to afford one taken by professional athletes. The grounds, equipment and diet cannot guarantee you success on their own but at least you have a foundation that you can build on through world-class coaching which also does not come cheap.

Provision of the above-mentioned things will mean nothing if you cannot convince people to take sports that are not high-rewarding at first. In a country where many people lack the social security enjoyed by the citizens of rich countries, giving full-time attention, required to succeed in international sports, is a big financial risk. So, very few people end up choosing sports other than Cricket. That way, we are out of the race for the Olympics even before starting one. Furthermore, some sports are immensely dangerous and an injury can make life extremely tough for a sportsperson. Thus, health insurance becomes even more important. Now you would be thinking about how many of these facilities do POC and PSB provide. Just like everyone else, I am also interested in knowing the answer but if the athletes who got 5th positions in Tokyo Olympics complained about lack of facilities, we can safely assume that others were treated worse.

Moreover, to reach sports grounds built in cities can be a problem for the poor in those cities living on the other sides or in villages, say, 60 KM away. A huge portion of the population lives in villages and it will be a shame if someone cannot fulfil his or her dreams because he/she lives away from a city. Therefore, any sports policy will also have to take into account population distribution and its socio-economic situation as well as infrastructure and public transport. You could be thinking why we need to cover a wide region? Why not just concentrate on the main cities first? We do not know where the best talent (Arshad Nadeem?) resides so we should not ignore any area. Also, how will we claim to have a population of 220 million and still not getting Olympic medals if we do not wish to provide equal opportunities to everyone?

Now that we have mentioned major problems, we can move towards proposing their solutions one by one:

1. Sports Complexes: Currently, we do not have sports complexes to cover a substantial portion of the population and even those complexes have membership fees. If you want to achieve something on the international stage, you need venues that are open to the general public through periodic talent-hunt programmes. Every sport requires a different set of skills. Therefore, the target can be achieved by top professional coaches and selectors. The process should be transparent and verifiable e.g. conducting trials in front of cameras and justify each selection with facts figures and give athletes the chance to challenge any selection.

2. Provide Cheap Sports Gear and Diet: The sports gear should be subsidised or provided free of cost to talented athletes. As stated above, the equipment used in different sports is expensive. So, to make more people playing an unconventional sport in the country, you will need to spend money. There are multiple ways this can be done:

a. Remove import duty on sports-related items that are not manufactured in the country

b. Create local industry for expensive sports goods that are not produced locally and subsidise raw material

c. Give tax concessions to individuals or businesses who sponsor a sportsperson.

The diet professional sportsmen take has a great impact on their performance and keeping them from getting injured. As described above, this kind of diet is expensive and hard to prepare. Just like gears, the diet also needs to be subsidised for sportspersons.

3. Put PSB and POC to Work: What Pakistan Sports Board or Pakistan Olympic Committee do to promote sports in the country is a mystery. The public generally does not know about the process to enrol for talent-hunt programmes (if there are any) and more importantly, what is the roadmap for taking up a sport for a young person. Professional sports are highly competitive and if you are not even showing the way, you are part of the problem. There is one thing that should be remembered is that Pakistan does not have facilities for all the sports included in Olympics. Hence, PSB and POC should build more sports complexes, buy all the essential gear and hire foreign coaches to conduct complete research on how much time will be crucial to achieve competitiveness in any sport and identify loopholes in the system.

4. Make PSB Accessible: We need more offices of PSB in every city and town to facilitate people. These offices should be responsible for helping young kids and students in taking up sports by providing them with all the necessary information and logistics to reach sports complexes. The bureaucracy in our country does not like to be questioned. So, we will need a different kind of monitoring system for checking the performance of these offices.

5. Set up a Centralised Monitoring System: We need a centralised monitoring system like NCOC for sports to keep a check on the performance of PSB and POC. Every small or major event should be live-streamed so that from a regional office to the PM knows what is happening on the ground.

6. Build Hostels for Athletes: To live away from home just for sports is a luxury not everyone can have. If you have found a talented person, you should facilitate them in every way possible. Modern hostels should be built and maintained for athletes.

7. Make Sports Rewarding: Certain standards should be set for players for every sport. If any player meets them, he/she should receive a government job. How will we know if someone has actually performed well? Take tests on camera with every decision being recorded and crosschecked. Athletes should be given chances to improve and take the test again or question the previous ones.

8. Participate In International Events More: When the players have reached a certain level of skills in any sport, the government should fund their participation in international events to hone their skills and become competitive. It should be kept in mind that our target is not to participate in just a few events in Olympics but even the games that are not played in Pakistan like gymnastics.

9. Promote Games in Educational Institutions: Schools, colleges and universities should be provided with sports funds and have a strong collaboration with POC and PSB for talent-hunting and honing. Some subjects that do not have any substantial practical applications, could be replaced with sports activities and students be judged based on that.

10. Telecast Sporting Events: Whenever a sport’s players reach a certain level of professionalism, their matches should be telecast on national TV. The players’ professionalism matters because they make an event worth watching. The production and commentary should be of international standards like we see for PSL to make the events enjoyable and attract more people into sports.

It is to be noted that one solution will not work for the whole country. Therefore, we will need to adopt a dynamic approach, keeping in mind the ground realities of any given region, in finding and polishing the talent. The PSB and POC will have to do research in the whole country to analyse which kinds of methods should be adopted to promote sports in a particular area. Every sport has its own complexity and requires different kinds of efforts and time to master. Hence, we should be patient and consistent with our approach. If PSB and POC officials create hurdles in adopting any positive change, retire them or transfer them to other government departments.

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This write-up was contributed by Muhammad Najam-ul-Haq. He can be reached at @SMNajam

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