What the Talha Talib story says about Pakistan’s one-sport obsession

Since July 25, a day hasn’t gone by without someone eulogising Talha Talib for coming that far or cursing the darned ‘system’ for ignoring our track-and-field athletes.

Talha Talib’s name has been front and centre everywhere and everyone wants a piece of him. Talib, which literally means seeker, is himself the sought-after (oh the irony!). This Talib overload also means that probably everything that could have been said about his Cinderella story or the system’s deficiency has already been said. Full disclosure: I would have added nothing new to those two points even if I tried because the dead horse has taken such a flogging already.

Also full disclosure: I have never lifted a dumbbell, let alone an Olympic-style barbell laden with back crushing weights on either side. With nothing new to add and no athletic experience whatsoever, here I still am about to contribute my two cents to the debate. But then again I am not so dissimilar to the anchors who have interviewed this man or journalists who have dedicated column inches to him but especially political analysts who wanted to use Talib’s example to validate their theories either about Pakistan’s undiscovered talent or the government’s failings.

So much has been said about so much, yet nothing’s been said about one part of the entire equation: you and me.

The general public or the casual sports fans walk scot-free past Talib with the same insouciance we had demonstrated when wrestler Inam Butt had his day in the sun, pointing fingers in every which way just as we had during hockey’s freefall to rock bottom, and pretending to be faultless when we see that the men’s tennis ranking has no Pakistani player in its top 40.

We feel smug in the knowledge that our conscience is clean, because if we’re at nadir in almost every sports, it is certainly not due to any fault of ours. Blame the athletes, federations, officials, the ‘system’ or anything under the sun but not us.

Here is some perspective for such casuals.

We have no right to laugh at any athlete that fails because we’ve never shown interest in anything but cricket for a cool minute.

Somewhere down the road we stopped caring for anything that was not our favourite bat-and-ball sport. You can argue that the results dropped first and public interest plummeted later but that’d be akin to the chicken-and-egg head scratcher. Point being that in Pakistan everything other than cricket has become a niche sport that only a small group of diehards follows or even know the rules of.

When fan interest dries up or is nonexistent to begin with, it also shrinks a sport’s reach, which in turn makes sponsors reluctant to contribute and the whole ecosystem goes belly up.

Granted that there are bigger things in play here and the blame apportioned to us, the fans, is small compared to the usual tomfoolery by our sports bodies all over but we cannot act as if we are also not enablers of this cricket-or-nothing culture.

Most countries’ sports bases have, at the very least, a couple disciplines they’re interested in but a typical Pakistan sports fan only has eyes for cricket. The next most sizable fan base loves their football but not local one but the one that comes out of Europe. One can point to the state of domestic football to argue why anyone would support it but then even when all was relatively okay, fans of European football in Pakistan hardly ever took notice.

The only time we take our eyes off our cricketers or decide to give their menial things a break is when some lone wolf a la Talha Talib or Aisam-ul-Haq Qureshi or Ahmed Mujtaba take matters in their own hands and do something so extraordinary that it makes national news. But that’s only for a second. As soon as the cricket superstars go about on their ‘super competitive’ tours of Zimbabwe and ‘super exciting’ home series against Sri Lanka, the focus shifts back.

In fact, our single-sport obsession has given so much power and influence to the cricketers that they now seem to deflect it away or use it for someone else’s benefit. A case in point was when Shadab Khan pledged to set up a fund for Talib.

All of this goes to prove our complicity, albeit limited, in this systematic slow poisoning of all sports not named cricket. So the next time we feel like laughing at the hockey team for not even qualifying for the Olympics and sprinter Najma Parveen for coming last in 200m heat, let’s also laugh a little at ourselves.

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