Only a couple decades ago, Pakistan was known for its high performing sports personalities. We produced some of the best athletes the world had seen. Every time we stepped into any sporting arena, we were a force to be reckoned; unbeatable and undefeated. Whether it was our national Hockey team who had several Olympic medals and world championships under its belt, or our world cups winning Cricket team. We excelled in individual sports as well with the likes of Jahangir Khan and Jansher Khan who brought home several world titles for Squash.
However, our athletic glory has now lost all its luster with teams struggling to even qualify to play in international tournaments. It’s been 27 years since the last time we managed to win an Olympic medal; failing to even qualify for the 2016 Rio Olympics. Among the reasons for this unabated decline is the fact that we took our successes for granted.
Most of these athletes were self-made, with little or no government support. There’s also a stark lack of planning to improve infrastructure as well as keep pace with the rest of the world. Our governments have also been inconsistent in supporting sports in the country. This decline also comes at the hands of vested interests and corruption in almost all sports, where we ended up failing our athletes just to earn a quick buck.
In contrast, over the last few decades, New Zealand has consistently produced some of the world’s best athletes. Their national Rugby team, the All Blacks, are said to be the most successful men’s rugby team of all time. With a winning percentage of around 78%, they have multiple championships under their belt and have consistently been number one in the world since 2009.
Their national Cricket team, the Black Caps are among the most successful in the International Cricket Council (ICC), ranking second in Test Cricket and third in One Day International matches (ODI). Their Women’s netball team is number 1 in the world. They have multiple Olympic medal winning Track and Field athletes as well as Rowing and Sailing teams.
So what is it that makes the Kiwis such successful athletes?
Sport is an integral part of their culture and way of life. They firmly believe that sport has the power to bind communities together while strengthening the economy. It improves well-being and instills values of discipline and teamwork; making people more resilient as individuals. Which is why, as a nation and government, they pay special attention to sport since it’s such an essential aspect of their national identity.
Their government body for sports, Sport New Zealand, focuses on the planning and infrastructural support required to maintain standards. It has a subsidiary called High Performance Sport New Zealand (HPSNZ) that oversees all elite athletic needs. It has facilities that use technology to analyzes their performance and overcome any shortcomings so they can reach their highest possible potential.
The Pakistani Ministry of Sports operates very differently. Not to say that their way isn’t right; observation would show that it has proven to be somewhat ineffective. Recently, any athletes that have succeeded have been self-made and self-financed unless they have private sponsors, with barely any government recognition.
HPSNZ also ensures that elite athletes have a future beyond their career through degree programs that guarantee jobs as well as psychological support programs after retirement. While Pakistani athletes, excluding some from our cricket team, struggle to make ends meet during and after their careers.
There are also multiple government as well as private sports programs that train athletes at the grassroots level i.e. in schools and colleges. This teaches them the importance of staying healthy and active throughout their lives even if they do not become sports people. It instills in them, values of good sportsmanship, honesty, mutual respect, and professionalism from very young ages. These programs make them athletes first, priming their bodies and minds, so they can become players of their respective sport in the future. It is most often from these grassroots levels that the best and most disciplined athletes rise.
Contrarily, while sports are played recreationally and at school level, there’s seldom any formal training for children unless they receive it privately at astronomical costs. Another reason why the Kiwis succeed, is that the public has vast amounts of support and appreciation for all their athletes which incentivizes them to play well.
Granted that, comparing New Zealand to Pakistan might be a steep competition. New Zealand is in much better social and economic state and is on its way to becoming a technological hub. However, that does not mean that we cannot adapt their attitude towards sports training to suit our resources.
Our sports authorities can start by planning better, improving upon the training infrastructure and ensuring transparency. We need to create support at the grassroots level as well; children who play well in school competitions, streets and parks can be shaped into future athletes. This would include grooming them with values of professionalism and sportsman spirit. Athletes should also be supported beyond their careers so that they have options after retiring as well.
We as a nation need to be more supportive of our national athletes as well. They deserve to be appreciated for their struggle. One recent example is our Special Olympics team, who have come home with 65 medals this year. They deserve to be applauded for representing their country so well.
Pakistan has consistently been a hopeful nation. We have overcome a lot worse than a few lost matches. We can still adapt some of these learnings and eventually return to our glory days. There is no lack of talent in the Pakistani youth, just a need to support and nurture this talent.