If the Olympics are as much about participation as success, Pakistan can be fairly pleased with its contingent.
It certainly isn't the most glorious of sporting tapestries but within it are nestled stories of valour and pride. While the medals tally — 10 in 12 Olympiads (three gold, three silver and four bronze) — doesn't amount to all that much, Pakistan's Olympic history has its fair share of intrigue and disappointment and a few special moments as well. There is the tale of the first medal Pakistan ever won — a hockey silver at the 1956 Melbourne Games — when a valiant team including the legendary Naseer Bunda and Habib Ali Kiddie, lost by a solitary, controversial goal to the dominant Indians. Bunda later got his hands on a gold medal at Rome '60.
Then we have Mohammad Bashir, arguably the country's greatest wrestler, who picked up bronze at Rome — he also won three Commonwealth Golds in the 1950s and '60s. And Hussain Shah, more used to boxing barefoot, gave the sport an international face in Pakistan by winning a bronze medal at the Seoul Games in 1988. Soon people will recall the tale of 13-year-old Rubab Raza, the first female swimmer to compete from Pakistan at the Olympics.
Given Pakistan's hockey pedigree, success in the Olympic Games continues to be defined by the chances of the men in green. But the Olympics are as much about participation as winning or losing and in that regard, Pakistan can be content. At Athens 2004, Pakistan will be represented by 26 athletes and a further 19 officials in five different events: hockey, boxing, athletics, shooting and swimming. "Our best chances of winning a medal are still through our hockey team or some of our boxers but it is heartening to have athletes competing in other events," says Latif Butt, secretary of the Pakistan Olympic Association (POA).
"We have had bigger contingents before but those were during the days when there were no qualifying rounds for specific events. Athletes would get picked on quota levels but now there is competition and we are pleased with the number of athletes going to Athens."
While the hockey team and boxers had to go through rigorous qualifying rounds, participants in the remaining fields were offered wildcards. Rubab Raza will be competing in the 50m freestyle, and compatriot Mumtaz Ahmed — 30 plus and a SAF Games silver medalist — will be swimming in the 400m freestyle event. For obvious reasons, all eyes will be on Raza. The first female swimmer from Pakistan at the Olympics, Raza won a wildcard for her performances in swimming competitions around the world, including her recent successes at the SAF games, where she picked up two silver medals and one bronze. Swimming since the age of four, Raza was picked ahead of Pakistan's number one female swimmer Kiran Khan, largely on the basis of her performances at the Barcelona World Championship.
"Last year I participated in the national games and was the fastest swimmer there," Raza — who is now training under the supervision of her parents — told the Herald in a recent interview. "I am excited to be going to Athens but it is scary being the youngest swimmer around. Still, I have been winning and hope to give a good performance." As for the training facilities at her disposal, Raza feels they are below international standard but due to financial constraints any improvements in the near future appear unlikely.
Also grappling to steer attention away from the hockey team and the boxers will be Khurram Inam, competing in his second Olympics in the skeet-shooting event. Having narrowly missed out by two points on qualifying for the final round of the Sydney games in which the six best shooters in the world compete, Inam, fresh from a gold medal performance at the SAF games, will be looking to go one better this time round.
Incidentally, he has also been given a wild card for Athens, having missed out due to a solitary point in the Asian qualifying rounds for the games. Speaking to The News, Inam's coach Razi Ahmed (one of the top six qualified international coaches) said, "Khurram is simply the best shooter in Pakistan ... this time he is getting special training to make himself tactically and technically more sound. We are getting help from the latest technology to sharpen Khurram's skills."
But Pakistan's best chances of success away from the Astro Turf lie in the boxing ring. Since Hussain Shah punched his way into the history books at Seoul, Pakistani boxing has flourished regionally, as well as internationally on occasion, resulting in a bronze at the World Championship in Thailand last year for light flyweight Nauman Karim. But the medal — Pakistan's first ever at the World Championship — wasn't Karim's only first. The boxer, judged to be Asia's best at the Olympic qualifying rounds in the Philippines earlier this year, was banned for a year after testing positive for a weight-control drug.
He is the first Pakistani boxer to be banned for testing positive for drugs. The distraught 21-year old later revealed that he had taken the medicine with little knowledge of its implications and had tested negative in earlier tournaments despite using the same medicine.
His gold medal from the SAF games has been taken back but of graver concern is what his loss means to the Pakistan squad. Journalists and officials alike saw Karim as Pakistan's best hope for a medal in the ring. Professor Anwar Chaudhry, President of the Pakistan Boxing Federation, counted Karim as Pakistan's best hope in Athens. Incidentally, three other members of the boxing squad were also found guilty of using the same prohibited drug.
Thankfully, Faisal Karim (Nauman's elder brother), Asian Games gold medalist Mohammad Meharullah, and Muzaffar Iqbal were all let off with warnings for unintentional use. Asghar Ali Shah, Sohail Baloch and Ahmed Ali Khan complete the pugilist contingent.
In a country where cricket still grabs the headlines all year, pulls in the crowds and attracts all the sponsorship money, two weeks next month — August 13 to 29 — will provide a refreshing change. And given the cynicism with which we greet our cricketers every now and then, it might not be the worst thing for Pakistani sport if a Khurram Inam or a Rubab Raza becomes the centre of attention.
This was originally published in Herald's August 2004 issue under the headline "Off to Athens". To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.
Osman Samiuddin is a an author and a sports writer for The National in Abu Dhabi.