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Rio Force 7 from Pakistan

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With the smallest contingent ever, of seven athletes and 11 officials, to the Olympics, Pakistanis can’t really be blamed for not expecting much in the medals department in this year’s Rio Olympics. With the last medal, a bronze, earned in field hockey in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, our athletes have been returning empty-handed since the 1996 Atlanta Olympics anyway. Still, one shouldn’t lose hope because miracles, too, can happen.

Two miracles have happened earlier — a bronze in men’s freestyle wrestling in the 1960 Rome Olympics and another in the 1988 Seoul Olympics, when a lean boxer from Lyari, Syed Hussain Shah, brought home the bronze medal in middleweight after the hockey team let us down there. In 1960, we had two medals, one gold in field hockey and the individual bronze bagged by the welterweight wrestler (late) Mohammad Bashir. That bronze was like a bonus as the hockey gold medal was expected what with such a great national hockey team.

For several Olympics, ever since Pakistan’s first medal, a silver in hockey in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, the nation became rather accustomed to seeing the Pakistan hockey team on the victory podium. The green shirts have three gold (1960, 1968 and 1984), three silver (1956, 1964 and 1972) and two bronze (1976 and 1992) Olympic medals.

A total of seven athletes are representing the country at the Olympics this year. Here’s who they are …

But after bagging gold in the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, something happened to them in the 1988 Seoul Olympics. For the first time in years, Pakistan would have come back home empty-handed from the Olympics had it not been for the bronze medal in boxing.

After a brief rollercoaster ride with several ups and downs for the national hockey team, they have finally hit rock bottom. Things have become so bad that for the first time since Pakistan’s very first appearance in the Games, at the London Olympics in 1948, the national hockey team could not even qualify for the Rio Games.

Swimmer Lianna Swan
Swimmer Lianna Swan

Of the seven individuals representing Pakistan this time, four, Haris Bandey and Lianna Swan (swimming), and Mehboob Ali and Najma Parveen (track and field) happen to be wildcard entrants. The remaining three — judoka Shah Hussain Shah and shooters Ghulam Mustafa Bashir and Minhal Sohail — have qualified in their respective sports.

Jukoka Shah Hussain Shah, who sealed a place in this edition of the Olympics through the continental quota, may end up doing for Pakistan what his father, boxer Hussain Shah, did for this country 28 years ago. Shah Hussain doesn’t box like Hussain Shah. The reason for this is that his father moved to Japan years ago and since judo is Japan’s national sport, he got his elder son involved in it when he was only five or six years of age. The 23-year-old Shah, who competes in the 100kg category, and has donned the Pakistan colour in the Asian Judo Championship and the Glasgow Commonwealth Games, will now be representing Pakistan in Rio as the first judoka from this country at the Olympics. He has been practicing hard for this in Japan for several months now.

Swimmer Haris Bandey
Swimmer Haris Bandey

Also in through the continental quota are Pakistan’s shooters Ghulam Mustafa Bashir and Minhal Sohail. Ghulam Mustafa Bashir, who likes to be called GM will be competing in the 25-metre rapid fire pistol event in Rio. The Pakistan Navy marine seemed quite upbeat when Images on Sunday caught up with him at the Navy shooting range in Karachi ahead of his departure. “As a naval officer, my initial aim was to be a good shooter, which comes as a duty requirement,” he says.

“Noticing then that I was not that bad a shot, my department concentrated on training me further in this skill. Having competed in national and CNS Inter-services shooting championships, I have 30 gold, 13 silver and five bronze medals under my belt so far. I have also competed in international events such as the Asian Games in Incheon in 2014, where I ended up 10th, and the International Shooting Sport Federation World Cup in Baku, Azerbaijan where I was 16th,” says the shooter, who also holds two national records.

Shooter Minhal Sohail
Shooter Minhal Sohail

GM has been practicing for eight hours daily for Rio for two months with his coach Vladimir Kovalenko from Belarus. “I am here at the shooting range every day at 8am. After dedicating two hours to running and swimming to control my heart rate while shooting, I get down to the real work,” says GM.

Meanwhile, when one of his aims went slightly astray during practice, his coach openly showed his displeasure over it. “He’s a tough coach. Now that I have narrowly missed my mark just this once, he will remain mad at me for a week, I know,” GM smiles shaking his head. “He is always unsatisfied, making me push my limits, which is good. Still, this was good enough to get me on the Olympics points table, you know,” he adds before turning his attention back to his targets.

“When aiming, you have to be so precise that you hit not just the bullseye but the centre of the bullseye,” says Minhal Sohail, who is competing in the 10-metre air rifle event for women in Rio.

Shooter Ghulam Mustafa Bashir with coach Vladimir Kovalenko
Shooter Ghulam Mustafa Bashir with coach Vladimir Kovalenko

With expensive equipment along with pricey bullets and pellets, shooting isn’t an inexpensive sport to pursue. Minhal says that she was ‘discovered’ by the Pakistan Navy during a summer camp in 2009. Since then she has been the junior champion as well as senior champion. She is also the national junior and senior record holder in her category.

“The former National Rifle Association of Pakistan president, Admiral Asif Sandila, wanted to involve youth in shooting so he started the junior championships in 2012 along with a scholarship for top shooters. But even before that there were the summer camps for young shooters, which I attended after I learnt about it from my father, who is also in the Navy. I discovered then that I liked shooting and there has been no looking back ever since,” says Minhal.

“I have represented Pakistan in several international events, but have not been able to win any international medal as yet. The Rio Olympics could change that,” she says hopefully.

The two swimmers, Haris Bandey and Lianna Swan, like judoka Shah Hussain, have also been training abroad. Haris’s elder sister Anum Bandey also represented Pakistan in the 2012 London Olympics. Now it is the younger sibling’s turn.

Judoka Shah Hussain with father boxer Hussain Shah
Judoka Shah Hussain with father boxer Hussain Shah

The tragedy with swimming in Pakistan is that we will never be able to produce world-class swimmers as the sport here is open only to whoever has access to swimming pools. So the best swimmers here hail from the elite class, which can afford club memberships.

Haris Bandey, who will be competing in the men’s 400-metre freestyle category and who has been training for Rio at the Barnet Copthall Swimming Club in London, has represented Pakistan in several other championships.

Lianna Swan, whose name itself seems apt for a swimmer, is a student at Loughborough College in Leicestershire. She has also been representing Pakistan in international events besides competing in national championships here as well. In the recent South Asian Games in India, she became the first Pakistani swimmer to win gold. At Rio, she would be competing in the 50-metre freestyle category for women.

The other two wildcard entrants from Pakistan this time are athletes Mehboob Ali, who would be competing in the 400-metre race, and Najma Parveen, who would be sprinting in the 200-metre race for women.

Mehboob Ali, an Army athlete, won two bronze medals at the recent South Asian Games. “I wish I had qualified for the Olympics instead of accepting charity in the name of a wildcard offered to us by the International Olympic Committee,” says the proud sportsman.

“But there are no regular training camps for athletes here that would unearth fresh talent. I, being the top athlete here, have been selected on my recent performance, so I am going and will try my best,” he says.

Najma, for her part, was brought in at the eleventh hour due to her performance at the National Championship held in Quetta in May. Earlier, Maria Maratib, another national sprinter, was expected to go to the Olympics. But then Najma’s gold-winning performance changed things for the girl who competes for Wapda on the national level. “My God made it possible for me to go and represent my country in Rio,” she says.

“It is a chance that came my way just out of the blue when my gold medal tally in national championships went up to six. As for being a wildcard entrant, it is really not my fault. I have worked very hard to be the top female athlete in Pakistan at the moment. It is the government’s fault that the top athletes of Pakistan don’t measure up to the world’s best,” she adds. “Give us facilities, and that, too, can happen.”

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