In May, I penned a rather cynical note on the security preparations for the Olympic Games. Britain is full of Games fever as the torch tours the country, held by pop stars and local celebrities; and greeted by cheering crowds. My Facebook is full of friends who have glimpsed the golden torch and managed a shaky photo of the moment. My own son now says he wants to see the flame when it touches down in Cambridge. But as the Olympics draws near, my cynicism about the over-spun, oppressively-sponsored event has been silenced by the arrival of a 16-year-old girl from Karachi.
The British Council, UK Sport and UNICEF have been running the International Inspirations programme for a number of years. Operating in 20 countries it fulfils a promise made by Britain when London was named Olympic host for 2012. The promise was to ‘reach young people all around the world and connect them to the inspirational power of the Games so they are inspired to choose sport – improving their lives as a result.’
When Pakistani school girl Zainab Imran arrived in Britain last week to take her turn in carrying the torch – the only Pakistani to do so – I immediately assumed she was a junior sports star. Here in the UK I have felt a little jaded about the over-use of the “inspire me” theme related to the games – but in other countries the UK government seems to have got it right. Although Zainab is a competitive soul who enjoys netball, badminton and even competed in the Dawn Spelling Bee, she is primarily here because of her charity and voluntary work. Only a youngster, yet she has already worked on health care initiatives, cleaned beaches and taken part in sports leaderships programmes. When I was in Karachi last year I learned about how young people in the city wanted to bring about social improvements – so I am very delighted that Zainab is here in Britain to embody this – being an inspiration and an example herself. And she is eloquent and charming with it.
It’s not often that an association between Pakistan and sport is such a positive one, and I confess part of the motivation behind writing this is to add to the sea of media commentary that focuses on all that is negative. Ask an English person their perception of Pakistani sport and they might say cricket match fixing. Some might say “Imran Khan” – and will remember his playboy and Jemima days not knowing his political side. Those who actually follow the game of cricket might utter the words “Boom Boom,” but that’s about it.
Ask Pakistanis about sports role models (and I did) and a different picture emerges. It’s not one without cricketers of course, but also features polo playing legend Podger El Effendi; the awesome Khan dynasty of squash players (Jansher was eight times world champion); and Shehbaz Ahmad, The Maradonna of Pakistan’s most popular sport – hockey. In Britain, Pakistanis are involved in football, motor-racing, and rugby to name but a few sports.
As Zainab takes up her torch duties I hope that she will be thinking about all that is great about Pakistani sport. The battle seems to be, not only in being a country able to host international games but in getting broader media coverage of positive sporting passion. As Shahid Azeem said in a speech that welcomed Zainab: “(She) represents all that is positive in our young people of Pakistan ... a new, positive, and fresh face of Pakistan. A face that is very much there – but often hidden”.
It feels as if at last the Olympics are beginning to be about the people and the sport – not about the security concerns, the corporate ownership of the Olympic rings, or the cost to the tax payer. So I might just take my son to see the torch in Cambridge – but perhaps after a game of quick cricket in the park and a conversation about social change.