The Asian games in South Korea are in full flow, and Pakistan is putting up a spirited performance. The women’s cricket team pulled a stunning victory against Bangladesh to clinch gold. Hockey looks strong after beating arch-rivals India 2-1 to top the group. In other departments, Pakistan is consistently punching above its weight, hinting at a vast untapped talent, but falling short of the mark. Their spirit can’t be faulted, but their preparation can be. With Pakistan’s ability to politicise even the most banal issue, one wonders what our contingent would have looked like if we had done what every other nation does for its athletes. 

Way before Shahid Afridi started adorning various shampoo ads, Hockey ruled the roost. The players were household names; a whole generation grew up glued to the radio, avidly listening to their exploits. Their aura and prestige travelled with them as they dominated world hockey. Then came a change in the rules. Instead of grass, hockey was to be played on a much more advanced and even surface, Astroturf.  And that is where the downfall came; Pakistani sports boards couldn’t cope. No Astroturf fields were funded; no schools were given incentives to make them. While countries like Germany and Australia have hundreds of Astroturf fields, Pakistan has only eight.

The plight of hockey echoes in many other sports. While games like cricket and snooker can be played in village streets and dingy wayside snooker clubs, sports like swimming, shooting, athletics, gymnastics, tennis, squash, etc require infrastructure. Specialised buildings, equipment, training and a decent wage are needed. Not just in a few urban centres, but in places where these sports can grow. Once our schools used to be akin to a conveyor belt churning out talent, now it has been long foreclosed. With the Asian games looming, we looked quite unprepared. Our PSB boxing camp was held in a tin-roofed room in scorching heat and no air conditioners.  The squash camp was delayed since we had no alternatives to our Islamabad training camps, which were held up by the sit-ins. The PCB’s errors are legendary by now. It is unfortunate that Pakistan’s story has always been of wasted potential and nostalgia for the good old days. We can fix this, there is still time.