Against All Odds
On December 8, a modest contingent of 26 athletes from Pakistan boarded the plane to Guangzhou in China for the First Asian Para Games, formerly the Far East and South Pacific Games For the Disabled (FESPIC Games).
The team had literally been on tenterhooks as it waited for the promised funds from the federal government, which never materialised. Eventually, the National Paralympics Committee (NPC) was forced to beg and borrow to ensure Pakistan’s participation in the games where 2,500 athletes from 41 countries were expected to compete in 19 sports.
The NPC Pakistan has been in existence for 12 years now and its athletes – despite meagre resources, next-to-nothing state facilities and against all odds – have so far managed to bag 55 medals in 15 international competitions. These include 16 gold, 19 silver and 20 bronze medals. The team has even managed to set a world record in long jump, proving that if provided proper resources and facilities, Pakistani athletes with disabilities can move mountains.
The games, with the motto “We cheer, we share, we win,” took off to a grand start. The opening ceremony was as spectacular as promised by the organisers, with a jam-packed stadium bursting at the seams with well over 20,000 spectators. But much more impressive than the spectacle was the emotion and thought that the games evoked. Every act was moving and motivating, giving the audience a sense of elation and pride.
Pakistan was competing in five sports, in some of them for the first time. The competition worked wonders for both the girls’ sitting volleyball team and the men’s goal ball team for the visually impaired. They learned a lot and improved immensely as they progressed through their matches. The support and advice they received from fellow players and coaches of other participating countries was extremely helpful in providing pre-match training.
This was true comradeship – something generally unheard of in the sport competitions of today. Sir Phil Craven, president of the International Paralympic Committee, summed it up beautifully: “Participation is more important than winning.”
For Pakistan there were moments of tremendous pride and moments of great surprise. In the men’s 400 metres, Pakistani athlete Muddassar, who is physically challenged with reduced muscle power in his right lower limb, was competing against giants like China, Japan and Korea. For the first 350 metres, he seemed to be losing as he trailed behind most, much to the team’s disappointment. But suddenly, to their utter shock and jubilation, Muddassar took off at a mercurial pace, whizzed past everyone and snatched the gold from other flabbergasted and helpless front-runners.
Tears rolled down the cheeks of almost the entire Pakistani contingent as the national anthem echoed around the stadium and the green and white flag fluttered above. Pakistan had arrived and what followed was a rejuvenation of spirits.
Our champion athlete Haider Ali, who is afflicted with cerebral palsy, once again broke his own Asian long jump record in his disability category F-38 and may well have broken his world record had it not been for the freezing and rain-soaked weather. Haider Ali later went on to narrowly miss out on the silver in the men’s 100 metres and settled for a bronze.
The next surprise came in the form of the young, lean and somewhat withdrawn Owais, who also suffers from cerebral palsy that has weakened the muscles of the entire left side of his body.
Hailing from a poor family of Jhang, Owais reminded me of Achilles with a spear, as he threw the javelin against his six-foot competitor to win the silver medal, thus placing Pakistan in 13th position in the medal ranking of 41 countries, well above many richer and more developed ones.
The NPC coaches had done a remarkable job, and in a befitting show of appreciation, their boss, founder president Tariq Mustafa, was re-elected vice president of the APC for a third four-year term, despite stiff competition.
Additionally, NPC-Pakistan’s founder secretary-general Imran Jamil Shami’s re-election as South Asia Representative of the APC-BE for the second term, as recommended by the South Asian countries in October 2010, was also ratified by APC’s General Assembly.
As the game’s flame and flag were passed on to Incheon, South Korea, in a dazzling and emotive closing ceremony, one couldn’t agree more with the assessment of the APC board and its President Mr Dato Zainul Abu Zarin that “these games were the best games ever put on so far.”
Back in Pakistan, the team was accorded a tumultuous welcome. Benazir International Airport was jam-packed with supporters, and the presence of several television crews for a sport other than cricket really lifted the spirits of the athletes and made them feel really wanted.
As the cheers die down there is much to reflect on, especially with the next Paralympics scheduled to be held in London in 2012, which is not far off. Pakistan has the potential to win many more gold medals, but in order to achieve this, much work needs to be done.
The government must rise to the occasion and support their star athletes by providing jobs, scholarships, stipends, awards, resources and facilities. At the moment there are virtually no facilities for sports for the disabled and a lot of hidden talent lies untapped all over Pakistan.
The corporate sector also needs to take a fresh look at its social responsibility. It could sponsor athletes, pay for their training, and remain involved. If corporate companies across the world sponsor teams of their respective countries for participation in the international Paralympics, why can’t the same practice be followed in Pakistan, which has enough billionaires of its own?
The media will have to spread the word and inspire others with stories of the winning athletes and raise the level of awareness on disability issues among the masses. Statistics show that 10% of Pakistan’s population is afflicted with some disability or the other.
Incidentally, the athletes with disabilities, who won more medals at the Paralympics than our team at the Asian Games in Kolkata last year, had yet (as of the end of January 2011) to receive a note of congratulations from their president, prime minister or even the minister of sports.
That’s the least they could have done for these enterprising youngsters who brought fame and glory to a country that has been shamed repeatedly by some of its most revered sportsmen.
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