Pakistan concluded the 2014 Asian Games on a disappointing 25th position, out of 37 countries, having won only five medals in Incheon.
The 188-athlete contingent, competing in 23 different sports, was only able to bring back one gold between themselves, won by the women’s cricket team. The Greenshirts, defending champions at the Games, were the only ones to claim silver, while boxer Muhammad Waseem, wushu player Syed Maratib Ali and the kabaddi team won bronze medals after semi-final defeats.
Perhaps the biggest disappointment was that while Pakistan failed to improve on the games that they are historically weak in, they also failed to live up to the expectations in their stronger suits.
Lack of preparation, funding
Swimming, table tennis, shooting, badminton, cycling, gymnastics and volleyball are some of the games that were considered to be write-offs to begin with, and most of the athletes taking part in these competitions were sent merely to gain international exposure.
“The players needed international exposure for the future,” said Pakistan Table Tennis Federation Secretary Kiffayatullah Khan. “They were placed in a strong pool with Japan, South Korea and China. How can we expect them to go into the next round when they face top teams in the first one?”
Pakistan’s top female badminton player Palwasha Bashir also feels there is no shame in failure when the competition is much better prepared. “We have reached and performed to our expectations,” she said. “The players who win the title practice for years and they are the ones who deserve to win. On the other hand, we only started [practicing] 20 days before the tournament.”
While these may sound like excuses and justifications for poor performances, the athletes are not entirely wrong when voicing them. The government failed to provide suitable training facilities for the athletes. “The other teams get to practice on international courts and grounds, while in Pakistan we only get to play on those courts twice or thrice a year,” said Palwasha.
The Pakistan Sports Board (PSB) makes no bones about it either as director Akhtar Nawaz Ganjera admitted that the board funded only a few of the federations such as hockey, kabaddi, karate and boxing. “We only funded the players and federations who we thought could win a medal,” said Ganjera. “The board gave an NOC to other federations as we didn’t want to stop any athlete from competing. However, we informed them that they need to come up with their own resources if they want to travel to Incheon and take part in the Games.”
The rugby, archery, baseball, football, gymnastics, table tennis and volleyball teams were among those who had to pay out of their own pockets to feature in the Games. Ganjera also admitted that few performances met expectations, let alone surpass them. “Instead of pleasant surprises, we lost the titles that we expected to win,” he told The Express Tribune. “We expected to win medals in squash, kabaddi and karate, but in vain.”
Two of the games that were invested in, women’s cricket and hockey, were perhaps the only ones from Pakistan’s traditional strengths that did not disappoint, earning the nation its only gold and silver medals respectively.
“We have been preparing for the games for the last six months and our goal was to win the gold and qualify for the Olympics,” said hockey team head coach Shahnaz Sheikh. “However, that was not to be.”
Despite the silver, Sheikh is upbeat about his team’s performance. “The hockey team was much more in practice in the last edition,” he said, justifying the Greenshirts’ failure to defend the title. “The current team went to Incheon without playing any international match for 11 months, but even then they were able to bring home a silver medal.”
Meanwhile, women’s cricket was the only game in which the country managed to defend its title. “The girls have performed better than our expectations,” said chief coach Mohtashim Rasheed. “They don’t have the facilities that other countries have for female cricketers, but they still managed to clinch gold.”
Rasheed claimed the Australian tour, which took place right before the Games, helped the team prepare for the continental event. “The tour helped the girls a lot,” he said. “They learned how to fight till the end, which resulted in the gold.”
However, despite the disappointments, Ganjera said that the athletes deserve applause and support and admitted that the contingent suffered due to the Pakistan Olympic Association-PSB conflict. “I’m with the players, and my job is to encourage them,” he said. “Individual players who won bronze, like Waseem and Maratib, will get a Rs1 million cash prize each from the PSB. Had they won silver, this would have doubled, and the board is giving Rs3 million for the gold medal.”
Ganjera justified the high prize money by pointing towards the importance of the Games. “The Asian Games are the most important event for us after the Olympics,” he said. “So even if our players have won just bronze, it matters.”
Of all the let-downs, the biggest one was undoubtedly squash, as the defending champions returned empty-handed and Pakistan Squash Federation secretary Aamir Nawaz admitted that watching the players lose their team title was disappointing.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 5th, 2014.