“Rio 2016 has been no different from London 2012, Beijing 2008 or any of the preceding Olympics going back to Atlanta 1996,” Pakistan’s Express Tribune complained in an editorial, headlined “Crisis in Pakistani Sport,” on Sunday. “Each time, there has been a hue and cry over the dismal state of affairs but the fact is that Pakistan continue[s] to nosedive further as time passes and one isn’t even sure if they have hit their lowest point yet.”
Pakistan’s lackluster showing is a reminder of something many of us know but don’t always keep in mind when watching the Olympics: The medal count is not a measure of athletic talent across countries, at least not primarily.
Some explanations for Pakistan’s poor performance at the games have to do with the structure of the Olympics: Cricket, for example, is widely played in the country, but it’s not an Olympic sport. Field hockey is, and from the 1960s through the early 1990s Pakistan was one of the dominant teams in the Olympic competition. But the sport is no longer popular among Pakistanis.
Other explanations focus on dynamics within Pakistan. A lower-middle-income country like Pakistan, for instance, can’t lavish its sports federations with money. (Relative to their counterparts in wealthy countries, people in poorer countries also tend to have fewer resources and less leisure time to devote to sports.) As a result, Pakistani federations are often unable to recruit young talent, send athletes to competitions abroad, modernize sports facilities and equipment, and hire coaches well-versed in the latest training methods. Khalid Mahmood, the secretary of Pakistan’s Olympic Association, recently told Germany’s Deutsche Welle that the government’s sports budget is the lowest in South Asia.
But critics claim the problem extends beyond investment in athletics, to political cronyism and misplaced priorities. “Funds are awarded haphazardly,” rather than consistently to the most promising athletes and sports, “with patronage-based hiring and inflated wages of officials swallowing significant chunks,” Agence France-Presse reports. There are non-political reasons why Pakistan’s prowess in field hockey has declined: The international adoption of artificial turf in the late 1970s and early 1980s, for example, is thought to have undermined Pakistan’s style of play. Nevertheless, the government’s paltry financial support for the sport in recent years has also played a significant role. If you’re a young, gifted Pakistani athlete, you can expect to make a lot more money as a cricketer than as a hockey player.
Gender norms are also a factor. Many young girls in Pakistan, a conservative Muslim-majority nation, don’t have the opportunity to participate in competitive sports. Often, they’re discouraged from doing so by their families or communities. “The womenfolk, which are 52 percent of the population, were not properly represented,” one Pakistani activist lamented after the 2012 Olympics, where only two of 21 Pakistani athletes were women. (The gender breakdown was more proportional in Rio, where three of Pakistan’s seven athletes were women, but that was largely because the men’s hockey team wasn’t present.)