THE WAY IT WAS: Where have they all gone? —Mian Ijaz Ul Hassan

Bashir got unusual media coverage, more than the athletes who proceeded to win gold medals. He was on the front page of almost every newspaper porting several suitcases including sporting gear packed in an indigenous metal trunk that rested on his bare head. The manager of our wrestling team had imperiously ordered Bashir to collect the luggage and transport it to the vehicle waiting outside

Not a single medal at the Olympics. Pakistan was noticeable by its absence. The PTV considered it a non-event. In these circumstances why complain if our youth race around town on motorcycles. What else can they do for providing an outlet to their energy? Exacting and bothersome children in a class are usually also the ones with talent. It is for the teacher to identify their virtues and channel them. When dams harness turbulent rivers they can be used for generating power and irrigating arid lands. If this is not done a river, howsoever mighty, will flow into the sea, seasonally causing havoc to people who abide on its banks. Taking lesson from this rather common analogy we could perhaps begin by establishing a motorbike-racing stadium to capture at least part of the energy wasted in the streets that is a source of strain and annoyance to the citizens. I am certain that at the next Olympics, to be held in China, one of them will fetch us at least a bronze. In the meantime our navy can perhaps train a few sailors and oarsmen, and the army — if nothing else — equip someone who can shoot straight at a fixed target. Instead of wasting time on futile war-games it would be in every sense far more rewarding to train for the next Olympics and win some medals.

Where has all our sporting talent gone? We used to collect most of the gold medals in sports at the Asian games — 100 metres, 200 metres, 110 metres hurdles, 400 metres hurdles, 800 metres hurdles, javelin, discus and hammer throws, steeple-chase and of course hockey. At the Olympics if we did not get a gold in hockey we returned home with silver. Occasionally we also distinguished ourselves in wrestling, boxing, sailing and even swimming — remember Brojan Das? Where have they all gone?

We had also inherited a noble wrestling tradition. An akharas were regarded as a sacred place. Tilled and kept clean by the wrestlers themselves as though it was a mosque. No one dared defile it or enter it without permission of the master. The pehlawans were trained to be polite and gentle. They never claimed to know their strength and were trained to wrestle, not fight. They were tame as a lamb and humble as an elephant. Where have all our wrestlers gone?

When the Kenyans won three successive medals in the steeplechase at the Olympics a commentator remarked that the Kenyans regarded the event as part of their national heritage and protected it as a very special gift to them. Why have we so utterly failed to protect our national treasures? By ‘we’, I mean us, we the people, not the state that is guided by other concerns. In the past the army, thanks to Brig Rodham, produced a string of athletes of great calibre. Since decades, however, it has not produced a single sportsman of substance, except for the generals who boss over various sports organisations. A general is generally considered good at everything. He can be chairman of the cricket board and rector of a university — whatever.

But let us for the moment leave the state aside and address ourselves. What have our barons of industry and the landed aristocracy done for the arts and sports? Thinking of the past I am reminded of Maharaja Bhupinder Singh of Patiala, who was a great patron of both sports and arts. Is there anyone among us who has equalled him in last five decades? He picked up cricket at Aitchison and encouraged others to play it at Patiala. When needed, the Maharaja could field an eleven entirely comprising of his family. Among other sports the Maharaja patronised wrestling. He felt particularly proud of Gama Pehlwan’s association with Patiala. Gama’s great strength and technique has never been equalled. He became a legend in his own lifetime. There are a number of stories associated with him. One of the popular one is about his encounter with Zabisko. Built like a giant, Zabisko was so powerful that he could bend the one-paisa copper coin by pressing it between his enormous thumb and forefinger. Troubled by Zabisko’s great strength and reputation, the Maharaja tried to dissuade Gama from going ahead with the fight to be held in Patiala. He assured Gama that no harm would come to his esteem and honour, as he would pay enough money to Zabisko to back off from the fight. Gama quietly listened to the Maharaja and said, “Maharaj, provide me the opportunity and then see.”

I believe for some spectators the fight was over before it even began. Those who were lighting a cigarette or exchanging a casual glance missed the fight because when they looked they saw Zabisko on the ground with Gama resting his powerful knee on his chest. At Independence, Gama left Patiala for Lahore and settled at Mohni Road. Gama didn’t have a son; his brother Imam Buksh had a handsome brood of five, the famous Bholu being the eldest followed by Acha, Akki, Goga and Hussu. It may be of interest to mention that Hameed Pehlwan, their maternal uncle, trained all five sons of Imam Buksh at the akhara situated at the Bhagatanwala Darwaza in Amritsar.

Tragically the last days of Gama’s life were spent with his noble hulk in a hospital bed. It is reported by those who overheard the great Gama who had never submitted to another mortal plead to his eldest nephew, “Bholu oh Bholu! Come remove this fly, it is bothering me.” The mighty Gama who had humbled Zabisko was himself humbled by time. In the end he couldn’t even whisk away a common housefly — a lesson to remember. At his death, Patiala did more for his widow and family than his own countrymen.

Sadly where have our wrestlers gone? While some African countries have treasured their sporting traditions we have lost ours forever. The last I heard of a wrestler was in 1960 when Bashir Pehlwan won the bronze medal at the Mexico Olympics. Bashir, on his arrival at the Mexico City, got unusual media coverage, more than the athletes who proceeded to win gold medals. He was on the front page of almost every newspaper. The press photographers went crazy flashing their cameras when they saw him appear in the airport exit lounge. Basheer was porting several suitcases including sporting gear packed in an indigenous metal trunk on his bare head. Actually all this had happened quite inadvertently. The manager of our wrestling team had imperiously ordered Bashir to collect the luggage and transport it to the vehicle waiting outside. Our Olympian, used to running petty chores for officials had merely accomplished what he had been told.

And then you ask where they have all gone.

Prof Ijaz-ul-Hassan is a painter, author and political activist