By Anjum Altaf
At the conclusion of the 2006 Asian Games I had written an article (Pakistan: A Downward Spiral) using performance in sports as an objective indicator of the structural changes that could have been taking place over the years in China, India, and Pakistan, respectively. The indicator pointed to a stunning improvement in China, an upward trend in India after a period of stagnation, and a steep decline in Pakistan.
Readers questioned the validity of the indicator but offered nothing better as an alternative. Given how cavalier people are in their comparisons between India and Pakistan, using broad generalizations of poverty and corruption to dismiss the diverging trends in the two countries, I continue to believe the indicator yields valuable insights to those who wish to face facts rather than deny reality.
In order to push the discussion further, I am presenting here the medals tally for India and Pakistan in the Commonwealth Games from 1954 to 2010, the latter still incomplete. I will use it to make a few broad observations followed by a discussion in which I would invite readers to participate.
India did not participate in the Games in 1962 and 1986. Pakistan did not participate in 1974, 1978, 1982 and 1986.
The data is from the official website of the Commonwealth Games.
Three clear periods and stages of performance can be identified with respect to India. A poor level till about 1962; an improved and stable level between 1966 and 1982; and markedly better level starting 1990 that shows all signs of getting even better in 2010.
The data for Pakistan shows two identifiable periods and stages. A reasonably good and stable level between 1954 and 1970 and a precipitous decline from 1990 onwards that seems set to continue in 2010.
The following observations can be made: Pakistan’s initial performance was better than India and remained comparable even after the improvements registered in India’s second stage. But while India continued to improve, Pakistan’s performance literally fell off a cliff and plunged to the very bottom.
These numbers are so stark and dramatic that even with all sorts of qualifications they tell a story. Such dramatic changes just do not happen randomly.
At a very broad level one can venture the following hypotheses:
- Given the common history till 1947, the relative similarity in performance in the very early period is plausible. The early bias in favor of Pakistan probably reflects the peculiarities of recruitment in the British army since the latter was the institution most involved in sports at that time.
- This peculiar advantage was eroded over time and similar economic and social trajectories could be attributed to the similarity in performance over the middle period.
- The respective break points seem to be the economic reforms in India and the Zia ul Haq Islamization in Pakistan. For the former, the rapid growth in the middle class and its preferences were reflected in the greater attention to sports and leisure activities. For the latter, the stagnation of the middle class and its religious inclinations deprived sports of whatever priority it had retained earlier.
- Contributing to the sharp divergence was the divergence in the place accorded to women in society. With the growth of the middle class in a secular India, the number of women participating in sports increased disproportionately. In Pakistan, the Islamization process actually reduced the proportion of women participating in sports. This factor by itself could account for a considerable extent of the change in the overall performance of the two countries.
As I have mentioned earlier the numbers and the trends are so dramatic that they cannot be dismissed as coincidences. They command attention and deserve discussion. I realize that there is a subset of readers who argue that performance in sports is irrelevant and unimportant to the larger picture. I do not wish to debate that perspective. My objective is not to convince readers that performance in sport is important or indicative of other processes that might be going on in society though I personally subscribe to the latter position. Rather, in this discussion my limited objective is to try and figure out how we can explain the observed difference in an objective indicator irrespective of its importance to larger aspects of life.
How do we explain the change? Is it the case that Pakistanis have just lost interest in sports or in competing? Have they just realized that sports is actually insignificant and a waste of resources? Has the focus shifted completely from sports as pride in performance to sports as a source of personal accumulation? Do the atrocious cases of leadership in cricket and in the fracas over carrying the flag at the Commonwealth Games point to even a deeper malaise in Pakistani society that we are refusing to acknowledge and confront? And are these not connected to the larger aspects of life?