The interaction between India’s gold medal-winning javelin thrower Neeraj Chopra and his Pakistani opponent and friend Arshad Nadeem has been one of the most heartwarming news stories to emerge from the recently concluded Tokyo Olympics. “Would have been good if Arshad had won a medal too. Asia ka naam ho jata,” said Neeraj in the true spirit of sports, when asked about his Pakistani rival who finished fifth in the contest. The Pakistani athlete wasn’t short of goodwill gesture either. He congratulated the winner “with a big smile”, as confirmed by Neeraj himself during an interview with the Indian media.
By their conduct on and off the field, the two athletes from Pakistan and India, the archrivals, truly promoted the spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play — something that the Olympic Games stand for. They did indeed live up to this year’s theme ‘United by Emotion’ meant to “express the hope that spectators, volunteers and athletes … as well as the billions watching on television and online across the globe, will come together and understand that there is more that unites than divides them”.
But this friendship transcending borders is nothing new. Ever since Neeraj and Arshad — young men of 23 and 24 respectively — first met a few years back, they have shown great respect and camaraderie during their public interactions and in interviews. Where Neeraj has established himself as the world’s top javelin thrower and is arguably India’s most prominent and successful track and field athlete, Arshad is not far behind. The Pakistani finished third at the 2016 South Asian Games, which Neeraj won, and has since shared the podium with him several times. Although Neeraj’s performances had consistently been of a higher level, Arshad has improved dramatically over the past three years, clearing 80 metres for the first time in 2018 before setting national and games-level records at events in 2019.
In fact, going into the Olympics, most avid fans of the sport saw Arshad as having a legitimate chance to pull an upset for the gold, and indeed to contend for the podium. Though neither of these happened as he finished fifth, narrowly behind the podium placers, he still established himself as not only Pakistan’s most successful track and field athlete ever — a low bar to clear — but also as an elite athlete in his sport. Yet, the biggest achievement for both men may not have been in Tokyo, but back home, where over 1.5 billion Indians and Pakistanis people cheered on the other’s athletes.
The javelin throw is descended from the ancient military maneuver of throwing spears. People just realised it was safer to compete without throwing them at each other. Where the ultranationalists in either country would tell us that the border separates ‘us’ from the ‘enemy’, moments like this are a reminder that the reality is far more complicated. Indians and Pakistanis can coexist without hating each other. We need not be friends, but we can respect each other and even take joy in the other’s accomplishments. We just need to acknowledge that we can do better moving forward together, even when our goals do not align. The results may not be perfect, but they will still be better than trying to shoot each other. Arshad and Neeraj show the way.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 15th, 2021.
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