In Pakistan, lawyer blames corruption for poor Olympic performance


Britain's Glenn Kirkham, left, watches the ball during a men's hockey preliminary round match against Pakistan at the 2012 Summer Olympics. Pakistan’s field hockey team logged a seventh place finish, the highest of any sport in which the country competed. (Eranga Jayawardena/AP)
August 28, 2012

Pakistanis groped to find something to celebrate after the nation’s Olympic athletes put forth a uniformly dismal performance at the Summer Games in London. The field hockey team logged a seventh-place finish, the highest of any sport in which the country competed — an accomplishment notable only because that ranking was ahead of arch-nemesis India.

Now comes the finger-pointing: Who, or what, bears the blame for the nation’s humiliation? A lawyer in Lahore has filed a lawsuit trying to find answers.

“It was absolute failure,” said Zafar Ullah Khan, the lawyer who filed the petition in the Supreme Court. “Nepotism, favoritism, corruption — this has destroyed our participation in the games.”

His petition calls the lack of medals “shameful” and a “national crisis.” It demands that a judicial commission be established to investigate exactly why the Pakistani athletes performed so poorly.

The sixth-most-populous nation in the world with 180 million people, Pakistan is the largest nation to walk away empty-handed from the 2012 Games, said Khan. The country has won 10 Olympic medals in the past 65 years since independence — eight of them in field hockey.

Various commentators have blamed political cronyism for contributing to Pakistan’s poor performance in London, saying that sports commissions are run by unqualified appointees. A Pakistan Olympics Association official said the group was unaware of the suit and could not comment on the concerns raised.

Pakistani athletes from other sports, including swimming and running, competed, but none progressed past the preliminaries except the field hockey team.

Khan, in an interview, said the overall poor showing could also be blamed on the lack of female competitors. Women’s sports are not a priority in the Muslim-majority nation, and women are culturally discouraged from participating in sports.

“We have sent only two girls, one athlete for running and one swimmer, and they finished up last of the heat,” Khan said. “The womenfolk, which are 52 percent of the population, were not properly represented.”

Khan’s suit says a nation’s medal tally is a metric of its health, education, nutrition, economy and social infrastructure. And Pakistan isn’t thriving in any of those categories.

“In Pakistan, we are quite literally engaged in a race to the bottom of the international league table of socio-economic indicators. As the London Olympics have shown, sports is one such field,” wrote Asif Ezdi, a former member of Pakistan’s foreign service, in an editorial in The News, a national daily.

“We are also touching bottom in literacy, educational standards, health, environmental protection and tax-to-GDP ratio, to name just a few other areas,” he said. “The only fields in which we excel are corruption — for which much of the credit goes to individuals in the highest places — income disparities and absence of the rule of law.”

Or, as Khan’s petition put it, “If there was any medal for corruption and begging in the Olympics [Pakistan] could have won all three places.”

The United States, China and Britain won the top medal totals at the London Games. But, as human rights activist I. A. Rehman noted in a column in the newspaper Dawn, “In Pakistan’s case the poor showing at the Olympics cannot be attributed to a shortage of money alone. Our political system does not allow for free competition in any sphere.”

“A radical restructuring of the sports authorities has certainly become overdue,” he argued. “Perhaps we need a 10-year plan for the promotion of sports as one of the key planks of social sector development.”

Pakistan has won three gold medals in its history — in 1960 in Rome, 1968 in Mexico City and 1984 in Los Angeles.

And as for 2012 in London?

“At least we return as the best ranked Asians,” said coach Khwaja Junaid to The Express Tribune. But the country’s continental supremacy did not extend beyond the hockey pitch: India won a total of six medals in the summer games, its best performance to date.

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