“It has been very difficult to explain to people. I have been training for javelin throw since I started sports in school. Before Arshad Nadeem’s Olympic campaign nobody would understand what I have been training for,” Fatima Hussain, a young woman elaborates what it means to be a javelin thrower in Pakistan and that too being a women in the sport.
Athletics and all the disciplines that come under it have been hugely neglected in Pakistan. Historically, most of the people have talked about sprint athletes only and hardly anyone talks about the decathlon or heptathlon events.
For Fatima, who competes for Wapda in the national events, the first level of her life-long struggle has been to just explain to people what her passion is, because in a cricket-mad country the ones who are not a part of the usual tide are usually left on one side.
“I have always trained for and played javelin throw,” Fatima told The Express Tribune. “It would get very difficult at times, because mostly people do not understand. If they did they wouldn’t react very positively. Due to Nadeem’s performance, at least now people understand how the event happens and what the sport is like.”
Fatima is based in Faisalabad, a city that has given many athletes to Pakistan and has immense potential for athletics. Nadeem’s breakthrough campaign at the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, which concluded in August, has been a sigh of relief for many track and field athletes in Pakistan.
Nadeem became the first Pakistani in 2019 at the South Asian Games in Nepal to qualify for the Olympics track and field event directly in men’s javelin throw. He later competed at the Games and finished fifth after a stunning performance, despite not receiving the same facilities or coaching as the rest of the international javelin throwers. He qualified for the final and then finished fifth.
Fatima hopes to see more support for the track and field athletes in the future, because so far the attention span of the people has been painfully short and the journey for her has been exceedingly challenging.
“I started in school,” explains the 23-year-old. “Most people had told me to play cricket or do something else. For some time I didn’t even tell my parents when I picked javelin throw in school.”
Fatima, however, says that her school teachers helped her and told her parents too, and there had been other girls who have been keen on pursuing athletics as a career, but not necessarily javelin throw.
“I was just curious to know what javelin throw is when I was in school. It must be 2012 till 2013 and then 2014 that I really trained and finally got make my mark at the National Championship in 2016,” said Fatima.
Across the board pursuing sports is difficult for women in Pakistan, and Fatima remembers her experience of being even cat-called by men when they would see the girls wearing the running shoes with their gowns.
“The society does not make it easy for us, even though I got support at home after a while. But when we go out for training, even when we are wearing our long gowns to keep our dressing modest, men would taunt us on the road and on the way. They would say come run with us, come let’s have a race, when they would see us wearing our running shoes or spikes. It happens and this is a part of what we have to go through, it is not easy, but we carry on,” said Fatima.
Fatima has represented Pakistan at the Islamic Solidarity Games in 2017, while on the national circuit she is a top thrower and has five gold medals and multiple silver medals throughout her career since she first made appearance at the national championship in 2016.
She is the top player as of the 2019 National Games, where she had a throw of 43.93m in Peshawar, whereas none of the athletes have gotten any competition since November of that year as the Covid-19 restrictions came into place in 2020.
In the last championship that was in 2018, she threw 39.13m and still finished at the top, and despite sporadic events to compete in, has been improving.
However, she feels that the lack of competitions has been a source of worry for her and other athletes.
“We haven’t gotten enough competitions really,” said Fatima as the last event she won and competed in was almost two years ago. “The national record among women in javelin throw is 44.78. I have hit 43.93m so I am improving, but we don’t have enough events to really keep ourselves busy. A proper cycle of the competitions is necessary to improve our form and technique.”
She added that there is also a limitation that lack of events brings. “We also don’t have a lot of players to really have that much of a cut-throat competition, because mostly people don’t see a scope in javelin throw. They drop out or avoid picking it up in the first place, but the players that we do have, we keep competing amongst ourselves, and that really doesn’t help in improving a lot,” said Fatima.
She said that despite the number of athletes in the discipline she tries to train younger girls if they do come to her.
She said that it is the lack of competitions combined with the dearth of facilities and equipment that makes the life of a javelin thrower or track and field athletes difficult.
“I do try to help the girls, but we don’t even have new and modern equipment,” explained Fatima, even though she dreams of competing in the Olympics one day and wants to see herself improve according to the international standards.
“We don’t even have the equipment. Like the javelin that I first used in school was made of wood. That is how we start, but even now, after all these years, we’re using an old javelin. We have two javelins here, one is from 1999 and the other from 1990. We have to be very careful while using these javelins because we don’t want to break them, or else we won’t have any equipment,” said Fatima. “The younger players who come to me, I try to share the javelins with them, but we have to be extremely careful.”
The total amount needed to buy a new javelin, Fatima reveals, will be Rs30,000 to 40,000. Meanwhile, most of the athletes do not have spikes either. Fatima says she needs new spikes but that would require Rs20,000 to 25,000 more, which she cannot afford given that the athletes do not earn much through their departmental jobs.
It is commonly known that the top athlete at the national athletics championship would get Rs5,000 for winning the title, which is embarrassing of a sum to even mention for most athletes.
But Fatima wants to keep her hopes up, now that the people are talking about javelin throw and Nadeem’s achievement. She is hoping for the Athletics Federation of Pakistan along with other sports authorities to have a closer look at the talent in Pakistan when it comes to the track and field events.
“We need new equipment to start with. I don’t even have proper shoes. We need more interest and investment in athletics.
“In Pakistan we need coaches. Maybe we can get international coaches to come to Pakistan and train more players here and have local coaches trained by them too, so that we can have an active eco-system that can help the athletes across the different disciplines,” suggests Fatima.
She further adds that she takes online lessons and coaching from a Nigerian coach as she cannot find proper coaching in Pakistan, despite being a top javelin thrower.
On the other hand, sponsors do not step forward either that can help in nurturing the talent of the athletes who are already doing everything they can to make Pakistan proud.
Fatima trains every day for at least three hours, even though for the last two years there have been no events to compete in.
When asked what keeps her going, she simply says it is her faith and her passion. “My motivation comes from hoping that things can get better and having faith, apart from the much-needed passion.
“I want to request the authorities to support us, and sponsors should come forward. There is a lot of talent and there is a lot of passion for athletics, for javelin throw even, and I want more resources to come our way so that we can make our mark internationally too.”
Pakistan will be hosting the 2023 South Asian Games and if all things go according to plan, Fatima’s hometown, Faisalabad, will be one of the venues too. She is hoping to be a part of the Pakistan squad after she had missed the 2019 South Asian Games.
Fatima is a dreamer and a persistent one, despite getting minimum pay from her department and also facing all odds as a woman athlete living in Pakistan.
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