World Athletics Championships were recently held in the Japanese city of Osaka. 1078 athletes (1050 male and 928 female) from 200 countries participated. As many as 46 of these 200 nations won at least one medal. Pakistan also had token representation of one male and one female athlete who got eliminated in the first heat. Both did not have to qualify as every country is given one wild card entry each in men and women.
It might seem unbelievable to most of us but there was a time when Pakistan athletics had world class performers.
That was about half a century ago, in fifties and early sixties. One would immediately point out that Pakistan has never won an Olympic medal in track & field. It is pertinent to mention that in those days, Olympics were the only stage where athletes from all parts of the world used to compete against each other. The world athletics championships only started in 1983 and there were no grand prix athletics meets either.
Yes, we have never won an athletics medal at Olympics. However, in that era not one or two but a number of Pakistani athletes produced “WORLD CLASS PERFORMANCES”
Subedar Abdul Khaliq was the fastest man of Asia winning the 100 metres twice in Asian games (1954 & 1958). Short but beautifully muscled, Khaliq excelled at Olympics as well. In the 1956 Olympiad, Khaliq was at the peak of his sprinting. He reached the semifinals of both 100 and 200 metres. And narrowly missed qualification for the final in both the sprint events. His best timing in 100 metres was 10.4 seconds equivalent to that of the last Olympics (1952) gold medal winner. In 200 metres, his performance was even more astonishing. He won both the first two rounds clocking 21.1 seconds. Unfortunately, Khaliq failed to repeat the same time in the semi final. In fact, 21.1 seconds was the best timing for all the rounds except that in the final.
These achievements placed him in top seven sprinters of the time.
Similarly Ghulam Raziq was a world class hurdler who won every honour other than an Olympic medal. He collected two golds and a silver in his three Asiad appearances (1958, 62 & 66). In addition, he won gold at Commonwealth games (1962), an honour which even eluded Khaliq.
Long limbed Raziq had ideal physical attributes for a hurdler- speed, agility and suppleness.
Raziq too shone at the Olympics, reaching the semifinals in 1956 and 1960 Olympiads.
Then there was the giant figure of Mohammad Iqbal, the hammer thrower. Iqbal won a complete set of medals- gold, silver and bronze in this three Asiad appearances (1954, 58 and 62). In more competitive environs of Commonwealth games (especially in those days), he won gold in 1954 followed by silver in the next edition, four years later.
He too distinguished himself at the biggest stage by finishing at 10th place in the Melbourne Olympics of 1956.
Another great Pakistani athlete who attained remarkable heights in throwing events was Mohammad Nawaz whose event was javelin. Like Raziq and Iqbal, he too won medals in three consecutive Asian games. In fact, Nawaz narrowly failed to achieve a hat trick of Asiad golds. Having won the title in both the previous editions, he was narrowly beaten to second place in the 1962 Asian games. Nawaz’s Asian record stood for about two decades! At the Commonwealth Games, he won a silver in 1954 and at the Olympics, Nawaz attained a creditable 13th position in 1956.
The saga is not restricted to sprints, hurdles or throwing. Pakistan also produced a remarkable long distance athlete by the name of Mubarak Shah. He achieved a distinction which no Pakistani sportsman (in any discipline) has ever succeeded to do- winning two golds in a single Asiad. In 1962, Shah won the 3000 metres steeple chase as well as the 5000 metres, creating a new Asian record in both. He also had a good chance in the 10,000 metres as well but the tight schedule forced him to withdraw from that event. Add to this, the steeple chase gold at 1958 Asiad and Mubarak has another unique record for a Pakistani i.e. three individual Asiad golds.
Once again to emphasise the magnitude of their achievements: How would it be to have a Pakistani tennis player in world’s top 7-12 rankings? Won’t it be awesome? Yes. Khaliq, Raziq, Nawaz and Iqbal attained comparable status. Track and field has always been the number one attraction of the Olympics. The world athletics championships are the most followed sporting event after Olympics and soccer world cup. Athletics is called ‘mother of all the sports’ as human has been running, jumping and throwing right from the first days of mankind.
However after the era of these ‘golden five’, Pakistan failed to produce a real world class athlete. A couple of them did shine at Asian level. Mohammad Younis (1500 metres), in fact, performed consistently well – winning silver, gold and silver in the 1970, 74 and 78 Asiads. Then Ghulam Abbas (400 m hurdles) won gold in the 1990 Asian games. But neither of them could even go beyond first round in Olympics/World championships or even Commonwealth games.
So what was special about the athletes of fifties and early sixties?
They were all army soldiers. They all came from Potohar area of the Punjab. They were lucky to have a mentor like Brigadier Rodham who ensured proper coaching as well as regular international competition for them. But perhaps more importantly they were all primarily kabaddi players before joining army. Kabaddi, the traditional sport of villages of the Punjab, is regarded by many as the nearest thing to a complete sport. It builds all the major attributes-speed, stamina and strength plus the vital killer instinct.
Will Pakistan be able to produce world class athletes in future?
Athletics is one sporting discipline which does not require many resources. Poor countries like Kenya and Ethiopia are major athletic powers.
In Kenya, in sixties, the European priests were amazed to observe that the local children daily walked and ran miles on hills to reach the school. They thought about utilizing this immense stamina of poor children into something really beneficial. Hence they devised the plan to groom these kids as long distance runners. The rest is history. Kenya has been a dominating force in distance running for last four decades.
Hence all that is required is concerted efforts in the areas of identifying talent and then putting it through paces by providing proper training and suitable competition.
The task is difficult but not impossible.