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OPINION: Normalising sport

ISLAMABAD (Dawn/ANN) - Matches like the Pakistan-India face-off in the Cricket World Cup are about so much more than the game itself: they are about nationalism, identity, power, geopolitics, as evident in recent government attempts to revive international sports in Pakistan to promote the country’s soft power.

HOW are you feeling today? The answer probably depends on whether Pakistan won the match against India yesterday — if the weather held, that is (I am writing before the ‘mother of all clashes’ has kicked off). Irrespective of the outcome, the event is a reminder that the national attitude towards sports skews too far in favour of sensation at the expense of substance. 

Matches like the Pakistan-India face-off in the Cricket World Cup are about so much more than the game itself: they are about nationalism, identity, power, geopolitics, as evident in recent government attempts to revive international sports in Pakistan to promote the country’s soft power. Visits by famous athletes like Luis Figo and Ricardo Kaka, earlier this year to promote the Soccer World Stars event, are often perceived as precursors to a wave of foreign investment and easier diplomacy. Last year, we titled a sports promotion scheme ‘Promotion of Sports and Regaining Pride’, inherently linking physical activity with patriotism and victory, preferably on an international stage.

Sport should be a grass-root activity.

Such ambitions are noble, though potentially misplaced given that not a single Pakistani athlete qualified for the last Olympics. That debacle led to much introspection, with calls for better infrastructure, more opportunities to compete internationally, and access to foreign coaches who can bring 21st-century training methods to Pakistan.

No one would disagree with these demands. But the obsession with Pakistan succeeding in the global sports arena makes it easy to forget that sports should be an everyday, grass-roots activity aimed at promoting health (physical and mental), community and social cohesion.

Part of the failure of a bottom-up approach to sports lies in dispersed governance. Sports is a provincial subject. But the Pakistan Sports Board (PSB) and the 37 national sports federations are national institutions. Sports infrastructure spending is routed through the Public Sector Development Board. National tournaments must be coordinated or facilitated by the inter-provincial coordination ministry. And that’s just the start…

Sports governance lends itself to politicisation and pettiness. Some may recall the long battle between the PSB and the Pakistan Olympic Association over a national sports policy determining the length of tenure of sports federation officials, which briefly threatened to preclude Pakistan’s involvement in the Olympics. Most sports infrastructure development is also met with allegations of political expediency and collusion. Such bickering is hardly sportsmanlike.

Provincial sports authorities are gradually improving their performance. For example, Punjab’s decision to double the budget allocation for sports is welcome. But spending plans indicate that the focus remains on finding champions who can bring Pakistan glory on the world stage. There are allocations for infrastructure, academies, and nurturing promising talent.

Here’s what’s still lacking: community sports infrastructure, open-air gyms with accommodation for girls, physical education training for school teachers, and most importantly, an awareness-raising drive emphasising the importance of sports for well-being. It is time federal and provincial authorities prioritised strategic interventions to identify ways in which sports are normalised as routine and essential.

This is especially important in a place like Pakistan where the road to sports is littered with poor facilities, a fraught security situation, extremist anti-sport stances, corruption and a mindset that prevents girls’ participation.

It is also essential in a country threatened by internal divisions. Sports is about discipline, inclusion, respect and fairness. It allows participants to transcend communal and class divides. How different would Pakistan be if it had a robust national school games programme that ensured that most young people travel to other provinces and interact on playing fields with peers from various ethnic and social backgrounds?

The mental health aspect is also important. It is estimated that 10 per cent to 25pc of Pakistanis are at risk of developing depression; by some estimates up to 40pc of women and 25pc of men in Pakistan are depressed. While Pakistan looks for ways to discuss this crisis, it should start to promote physical activity as a means of tackling it.

The task is less daunting than it seems, eg the Karachi United Football Club has shown that it’s possible to develop an inclusive, grass-roots sports community. The club caters to serious players with its men’s and women’s divisions, organises tournaments and trainings, but also lowers barriers of entry to the world of sports through its ‘centres of excellence’, which have been attended by hundreds of children. Our government can make such examples commonplace; it just needs to care about promoting sport as much as it cared about winning yesterday’s match. 

(The writer is a freelance journalist.)

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