From gold to bronze, FATA sportsmen blaze a shimmering trail of success

: Photo By News Lens Pakistan / Matiullah Achakzai
Photo By News Lens Pakistan / Matiullah Achakzai

Khyber Agency: That he will win a gold medal in the national games someday was the furthest thing from his mind when Qaiser Afridi took up judo as a kid. Nearly as old as the militancy that has wracked his native Khyber Agency, Afridi, 16, only wanted a sport – first as a child and later to get away from the stifling, long conflict that killed all sports and entertainment in the tribal district he comes from.

For years, he travelled from Bara town in Khyber Agency in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), taking a bus to the neighbouring Peshawar to learn judo at the Qayyum Stadium, a sports complex in the provincial capital. At its best a sport with a cult appeal, there are not many adherents of judo – a modern martial art, combat and Olympic sport created in Japan in 1882 –in the region and it is not taught, played or practiced widely. But Afridi had taken a liking to the sport as a child. And for a child in Khyber Agency, being trained at a national sports complex was better than living in a fearful environment, doing nothing.

“For the last six years, there have been no sports activities in FATA due to terrorism and extremism,” said Muhammad Ayaz Khan, Director Sport FATA. “Militants have destroyed education institutes and all sports activities have died. Due to the terror of bombs and suicide attacks, people cannot gather in one place. FATA has very talented sportsman but due to lack of opportunity, they cannot realize their potential.”

When Afridi enrolled into judo classes at Qayyum Stadium, he didn’t know it was the wisest career decision a boy of his age – adrift in a conflict-shattered society without hope or promise for its youth – could have taken. First, Qayyum Stadium is the only sports complex that teaches judo as a professional sport. Second, being a national sports complex, it trains and recommends sportsman of distinction to be put on national teams.

For a long time, the sportsmen in FATA have depended on sports facilities provided by Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government for training. FATA, say local sportsmen, require permanent sports facilities to enable youth to take up sports, saving them from violence and joining militants.

“We are sure that violence and terrorism activities will end if the government promotes sports in FATA,” says Shahid Shinwari, General Secretary of the FATA Olympic Association associated with the Pakistan Olympic Association.

Shinwari told News Lens that from 2006 to 2010, all sports activities in FATA were stopped. In Khyber, Mohmand and Bajaur agencies militancy and military operations displaced people and sent youth into the confines of their homes, the fields and playgrounds presenting an abandoned, desolate look.

For some time, it seemed to Afridi that his plans to achieve excellence in his favourite sport were going in the right direction. But then came 2009, the year militancy swept through the border towns like wildfire. For a boy from a poor family, all hope was lost when his father, the sole bread winner of the family, fell prey to militancy in 2009, killed militants attacked their village with mortars. He was only ten at the time.

The same year, Afridi’s family was displaced as a result of Pakistan Army operation against militants in Khyber Agency. For two years, Afridi  lived with his family in Jalozai Camp, one of the largest camp for the Internally Displaced Persons in Nowshera district. But he never gave up on judo, travelling to Peshawar to visit the Qayum Sports Complex where a teacher trained judo players.

Between 2010 to 2014, according to Shinwari, the government focused on reviving sports activities in FATA especially in Mohmand, Bajaur, Kurram and Khyber Agency except the embattled Bara tehsil – hometown of Qaiser Afridi – that is still volatile due to militant activities and military operations.

From 2010 onwards, says Shinwari, FATA players have shown tremendous progress in all sports. “We have organised intra-agency tournaments in Bajaur, Mohmand and Khyber agencies that attracted a huge number of spectators,” he said. “The government also wants to discourage militancy and terrorism through promotion of sports but no real work has been done in this regard.”

Shinwari said FATA women players had immense potential but lack of facilities hampered their desire to represent their region at national level because they were unable to practice.

The validation of Shinwari’s claim that FATA youth excelled in sports despite the odds stacked against them can be seen in Qaiser Afridi’s case. By 2013, the teenage judo player had already joined the Pakistan National Judo team and won a gold medal. In 2014, he played in the National Games held in Islamabad again, winning two bronze medals.

This year, Afridi, a student of grade 10 in Khyber Model School in Bara, Khyber Agency, represented his agency in the first Governor Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Peace Games held at the Qayum Sports Complex Peshawar. Between June 1 to June 4, 2015, some 10,000 players from the seven tribal agencies and six Frontier Regions (FRs) in FATA participated in the sports festival organized by the FATA Sports Directorate.

Around 17 different games comprising athletics, badminton, basketball, bodybuilding, baseball, cycling, karate, hockey, football, jujitsu, taekwondo, volleyball, table tennis, swimming, weightlifting and judo were played during the sports festival. Afridi, who represented his agency in judo tournaments, told News Lens the festival was the first of its kind for players of tribal areas.

“Despite lack of sports facilities in the tribal areas, FATA players earned distinction for the region and the country,” said a confident Afridi who clearly seems to have emerged victorious from the decade-long insurgency in a region that is among the worst-affected by conflict in Pakistan. “I am now preparing to participate in the international games in Dubai later this year.”

Director Sport FATA Muhammad Ayaz Khan said that the sports gala at Peshawar proved that FATA players were as talented as youth anywhere in the world.

“It is a great opportunity for us to dig out talented players and expose them to national and international sports competition,” said Ayaz. “In December this year, we will organize a huge youth festival in FATA.

Back at the stadium, Afridi is getting ready to practice judo – he says he requires six hours daily practice to excel in the international games he is preparing for. He practices three hours in the morning and three hours in evening at the stadium in Peshawar, away from his hometown in Khyber Agency.

“There are no sports facilities available for youth in my agency,” said Afridi. “A lot of talented players are going to seed because of lack of opportunity.”


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