Pakistan: Falling Off a Cliff

By Anjum Altaf


At the conclusion of the 2006 Asian Games I had written an article (Pakistan: A Downward Spiral) using performance in sports as an objective indicator of the structural changes that could have been taking place over the years in China, India, and Pakistan, respectively. The indicator pointed to a stunning improvement in China, an upward trend in India after a period of stagnation, and a steep decline in Pakistan.

Readers questioned the validity of the indicator but offered nothing better as an alternative. Given how cavalier people are in their comparisons between India and Pakistan, using broad generalizations of poverty and corruption to dismiss the diverging trends in the two countries, I continue to believe the indicator yields valuable insights to those who wish to face facts rather than deny reality.

In order to push the discussion further, I am presenting here the medals tally for India and Pakistan in the Commonwealth Games from 1954 to 2010, the latter still incomplete. I will use it to make a few broad observations followed by a discussion in which I would invite readers to participate.

1954 0 0 0 0 1 3 2 6
1958 2 1 0 3 3 5 2 10
1962 8 1 0 9
1966 3 4 3 10 4 1 4 9
1970 5 3 4 12 4 3 2 9
1974 4 8 3 15
1978 5 5 5 15
1982 5 8 3 16
1990 13 8 11 32 0 0 0 0
1994 6 11 7 24 0 0 3 3
1998 7 10 8 25 0 1 0 1
2002 30 22 17 69 1 3 4 8
2006 22 17 10 49 1 3 1 5
2010 38 27 36 101 2 1 2 5

India did not participate in the Games in 1962 and 1986. Pakistan did not participate in 1974, 1978, 1982 and 1986.
The data is from the official website of the Commonwealth Games.

Three clear periods and stages of performance can be identified with respect to India. A poor level till about 1962; an improved and stable level between 1966 and 1982; and markedly better level starting 1990 that shows all signs of getting even better in 2010.

The data for Pakistan shows two identifiable periods and stages. A reasonably good and stable level between 1954 and 1970 and a precipitous decline from 1990 onwards that seems set to continue in 2010.

The following observations can be made: Pakistan’s initial performance was better than India and remained comparable even after the improvements registered in India’s second stage. But while India continued to improve, Pakistan’s performance literally fell off a cliff and plunged to the very bottom.

These numbers are so stark and dramatic that even with all sorts of qualifications they tell a story. Such dramatic changes just do not happen randomly.

At a very broad level one can venture the following hypotheses:

  1. Given the common history till 1947, the relative similarity in performance in the very early period is plausible. The early bias in favor of Pakistan probably reflects the peculiarities of recruitment in the British army since the latter was the institution most involved in sports at that time.
  2. This peculiar advantage was eroded over time and similar economic and social trajectories could be attributed to the similarity in performance over the middle period.
  3. The respective break points seem to be the economic reforms in India and the Zia ul Haq Islamization in Pakistan. For the former, the rapid growth in the middle class and its preferences were reflected in the greater attention to sports and leisure activities. For the latter, the stagnation of the middle class and its religious inclinations deprived sports of whatever priority it had retained earlier.
  4. Contributing to the sharp divergence was the divergence in the place accorded to women in society. With the growth of the middle class in a secular India, the number of women participating in sports increased disproportionately. In Pakistan, the Islamization process actually reduced the proportion of women participating in sports. This factor by itself could account for a considerable extent of the change in the overall performance of the two countries.

As I have mentioned earlier the numbers and the trends are so dramatic that they cannot be dismissed as coincidences. They command attention and deserve discussion. I realize that there is a subset of readers who argue that performance in sports is irrelevant and unimportant to the larger picture. I do not wish to debate that perspective. My objective is not to convince readers that performance in sport is important or indicative of other processes that might be going on in society though I personally subscribe to the latter position. Rather, in this discussion my limited objective is to try and figure out how we can explain the observed difference in an objective indicator irrespective of its importance to larger aspects of life.

How do we explain the change? Is it the case that Pakistanis have just lost interest in sports or in competing? Have they just realized that sports is actually insignificant and a waste of resources? Has the focus shifted completely from sports as pride in performance to sports as a source of personal accumulation? Do the atrocious cases of leadership in cricket and in the fracas over carrying the flag at the Commonwealth Games point to even a deeper malaise in Pakistani society that we are refusing to acknowledge and confront? And are these not connected to the larger aspects of life?


  • Vikram
    Posted at 23:23h, 08 October Reply

    While I broadly agree with your points about the worryingly divergent trends that India and Pakistan have followed, and the status of women, I would disagree on the points regarding the middle class.

    Most of the medal winners for India are not from the metro middle class, they either tend to be rural folks or rich folks participating in individual sports. Also, the pathetic attendances in these games indicate the relative lack of interest the middle class has in sports in general.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 01:26h, 09 October Reply

      Vikram: I agree, this needs more probing. The way I would look at it is as follows: Both the rich and the rural folks were always there but their presence was not reflected in performance in sports. So, something has clearly changed. Perhaps, the number of the rich is so large now that it has exceeded the critical mass needed for sports getting some priority – it could be a byproduct of the aspiration for a global presence one manifestation of which is the staging such events themselves. Once sports gets that priority it also provides the opportunity for rural talent to perform. Further, the boundary between the upper end of the middle class and what you are calling the rich could be fuzzy. To take a concrete example – when the new crop of tennis players (Sania Mirza, Rohan Bopanna, etc.) started out, were they part of the middle class or the rich?

      • Vikram
        Posted at 02:15h, 09 October Reply

        Perhaps I am wrong? This page contains a comprehensive summary of India’s performance at the games. Most of the athletes seem to be from middle to lower middle class backgrounds (based on a random perusal). The only rich person on there seemed to be Abhinav Bindra.

        • Anjum Altaf
          Posted at 12:13h, 09 October Reply

          Vikram: I didn’t have any empirical evidence but my reasoning was that it is the middle class that can send its children to schools where sports is part of the curriculum. The middle class is also employed in institutions that often have their own sports clubs and facilities. So a rapid and significant increase in the size of the middle class would see sports becoming part of the life of a growing pool of people. Of course, once competitive sports become an accepted activity spill over effects will kick in. The majority of the population gets an arena to excel that was not there before. And, in search of excellence, institutions or regions can begin to look for talent that is not limited to certain income groups.

          Thanks for the link to the table. I found it to be quite a revelation that should trigger more discussion. The concentration of India’s successes suggests some strategists have been at work in preparation for these games. Over one-third of the total medals are in shooting and shooting, wrestling, weightlifting, and archery combine for about 85% of the total. If indeed this was a conscious strategy, it was a very smart one. This focus on building comparative advantage and allocation of effort to events with the most medals on offer is very much the model followed with great results by the Chinese for the Olympic Games.

  • Sangram
    Posted at 12:28h, 10 October Reply

    Altaf:You have made quite an compelling anyalisis and I totally agree with you.Vikram is also very correct that most of the winners are not from middle class.Infact some are daughters of rickshawwalla,tribals etc.This shows deep penetration of facillities such as education,communication etc due to India`s progress.Surely intelligent people like you must do something to build a constituency to steer pakistan towards progress and away from talibanization.

    • Anjum Altaf
      Posted at 20:51h, 10 October Reply

      Sangram: Pakistan is not a train wreck that is waiting to happen; it has happened already. What we are watching is the fallout. Had the fallout been confined within its geographical boundaries we wouldn’t need to be on a South Asian forum. But that is not the case as we saw in Mumbai and that is why Pakistan’s fate should be of concern to the region.

      Whatever the fallout, geographical entities do not disappear. They reconstitute themselves. And how Pakistan reconstitutes itself would depend on the coalition within it that prevails. That is the reason why Indians with a vision should not tar all of Pakistan with the same brush. Rather, they should discriminate and reach out to identify and support the groups that believe in an inclusive and peaceful future for the region.

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