While the attempts to portray a positive image of Pakistan, through videos of persons who have had exhilarating travel experiences in the country, or through other means aimed at projecting a peaceful picture of Pakistan are welcome, they are not sufficient to change perceptions.
Unfortunately, the perception of Pakistan is of a dangerous country, where travelers struggle to obtain visas to almost any destination in the world and from whom polio cards are demanded even for transit purposes. The recent suspension of Pakistan’s troubled anti-polio drive will not help matters, and the stories projected by foreign vloggers about travel in Pakistan are being challenged by some.
It is perfectly understandable, even appreciable, that the prime minister and his team are prepared to do whatever is possible to pull Pakistan back onto the map of the world – even if it is a map on which Japan and Germany stand side by side! But the methods they are using need to be more solid and more productive.
In our country at least, sports is not seen as a major issue. But essentially, it is a matter which can do a great amount in a short time to bring glory to a country and build self-esteem within it and also establish it as a nation recognized in the world. When Pakistani sporting teams visit other countries, athletes who meet them from around the world often comment with some surprise on how Pakistan is after all not completely torn apart by war and not inhabited by persons who wish only to kill, maim and are ignorant and uneducated. Sports can be an excellent tool to swiftly project a good image of the country onto the world stage.
We may know little about Jamaica, that sunny island in the Caribbean sea, but most of us known about Usain Bolt and other Jamaican sprinters who have put their minuscule country in a prominent place on the map of the world. Pakistan could win for itself a similar place if it tried.
The route of sports is one way in which this attempt could be made. Beyond international recognition, and potential glory, sports also offers a country that is dominated by youth many opportunities. Prime Minister Imran Khan has indeed repeatedly emphasized that young people and their future would be the centre of his government’s policies. One way to establish this is by offering them opportunities to excel and also to live lives of a higher quality. The issue of the mental and physical well-being of young people, especially the less privileged, has gone largely ignored. We have what some experts say is a soaring rate of mental illness, with young people among the groups most affected by this. Suicides even among school-age children and the incidents of drug use, behaviours such as self-harm, glue sniffing and similar acts signal our youth is in distress. In a country where people under 30 form 64 percent of the population, making Pakistan the country with the highest percentage of youth in the world, it is essential they be reached out to. In these people lies our future and our chance to build a better, more equitable nation with a larger number of opportunities available to all.
There are many routes that can be used to reach this target. There are naturally challenges involved no matter what method we choose to try and benefit our youth and our young children. But in a country which at least in the past enjoyed a proud sporting record, sports should be a natural choice. When we think of sports, we must look beyond cricket. The cricket playing field has been the point from which Imran Khan launched his career as an outstanding all rounder, and utilized his fame to set up Pakistan’s best cancer hospital and to project him into the prime minister’s office. Therefore, the assumption that he would consider sports a priority was natural. But in that he has faltered. His efforts to restructure the cricketing structure of Pakistan, by abolishing departments and instead having them sponsor regional teams, has created a furore with former test captain Javed Miandad who played under Imran Khan asking what his former captain was doing.
Miandad, and others like squash legend Jehangir Khan and hockey maestro Islahuddin Siddiqui have pointed out that departments offer players jobs and income and the financial support which has in the past kept Pakistan at top position in multiple disciplines. The disappearance of this support has brought about a rapid decline. The sport of squash receives only between Rs17 lakh and Rs20 lakhs per year. It does not take much math to work out that this sum is insufficient to take the sport forward, to produce champions of the caliber of Jehangir himself or others of similar talent again, and to raise Pakistan to a point where as it did into the early 1990s, establish its dominance over the sport.
The policy regarding departments then needs to be rethought given the level of concern raised. The same concern exists among sportsmen and women in every department, many of whom currently support families on the salaries they receive. In such a situation, Pakistan needs first of all to reconsider its entire sports structure. Its task has been made easier by the ‘Khelo India’ initiative launched across the border in January 2018. The elaborately thought out plan sets up a new sporting order which first of all establishes sport as an integral part of life. It begins at the school level, and aims to bring back sports onto school fields from where it has vanished in our country. In fact, children sometimes are actively discouraged from taking part in sports.
Like India, we too need to re-inject sports back into their lives and into the lives of young people, use and adapt the model set up in that country for our own purposes but take sports to more and more people even in remote areas by including women, indigenous groups, the disabled and others in the overall programme. There is early evidence that India has begun to benefit already from the programme, with five Indian male and female shooters already winning quota places to Tokyo 2020. Others are likely to follow and of course it will take some years for the government’s new programme to truly bring back rewards in terms of sporting success. But the rewards, when they come, will be significant to that country. The same could happen in Pakistan, a nation desperate to catch a glimpse of glory if similar thought and effort was put in.
In the past, our efforts to make a name for ourselves in the world have essentially bordered on the ludicrous. We had attempts to break Guinness World Records in public view in Lahore under the previous PML-N government. These included attempts to break walnuts with the head, produce mass paintings and other essentially futile pursuits. We hope the PTI will recognize how much potential Pakistan’s children and young people hold. Sports is one way of pulling this forward. A policy that can achieve this and also find the funding necessary to uplift sports would give the country a goal and a vision that could act to unify and strengthen it as a whole.