At the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham on Sunday, Pakistan’s Arshad Nadeem won the javelin throw gold and underlined his status as a world class athlete. With his effort of 90.18 m, Nadeem crossed a barrier that even India’s Olympic gold medalist Neeraj Chopra hasn’t. While Chopra missed these Games because of injury, in the coming days the healthy on-field rivalry between the two friends is expected to intensify – both egging the other to throw the javelin further. Chopra’s best is 89.94 m.
On his way to the gold, Arshad Nadeem broke the record and even pushed the World Championship gold medalist Grenada’s Anderson Peters, who threw 88.64 m, to the second spot.
The town of Mian Channu in Pakistan’s Punjab stayed up late to catch the historic occasion. His father Muhammad Ashraf, a mason by profession, despite the late hour was awake to witness the biggest moment of his son’s career.
Nadeem taking up javelin throw had a lot to do with his father’s passion for Pakistan’s very popular rural sport Nezabazi – tent pegging. Like most men in the town, Nadeem, after a tiring day’s work, would head to the ground to watch horsemen show their daredevilry. His son too would accompany him. On his father’s insistence, Nadeem would take up Nezabazi and would train every day. This would make the young boy a regular at the town’s sprawling grounds and expose him to different outdoor sports.
Nadeem would soon switch to playing tape-ball cricket but it was a school athletics event where the tall youngster’s javelin throw talent was identified. Under coach Rasheed Ahmad Saqi that Nadeem would train to throw the spear.
Third eldest of eight siblings, Nadeem’s father would make sure that his sporting son always got his share of milk and ghee. “I used to earn 400-500 per day on contract labour at that time and it was tough to manage things for all the children. But I made sure that Nadeem would get milk and ghee to become a well built youth. I did not want him to work like me and I always wanted him to lead a good life, which he has ensured with his performances,” says the father.
Nadeem had modest goals when he started to pursue javelin throw seriously. Looking for a government job to support his family, he attended the sports quota trials for Pakistan Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA). There his throw of 55m would catch the attention of five-time Pakistan national champion and former Asian medallist javelin thrower Syed Hussian Bukhari.
Nadeem would be called by the coach for a meeting after the trials. Bukhari, who would train in various grounds in Lahore, would urge the higher authorities at WAPDA to give Nadeem a chance for the sports quota job on his guarantee that the youngster would cross the 60 m mark in two months, a set standard for the javelin throwers in the trials.
“When I first saw Arshad, I was impressed by his strong arms at such a young age and saw a spark in him. Even though he threw 55m in the trials, I was sure that if coached in a proper set up, he would improve only. Joining the hostel meant that he got a good diet. It also improved his training technique. Within two months he crossed 60 m and four months later, at the age of 18 years, he crossed 70 m with a throw of 70.46 m in the Pakistan National Championship in 2015,” shares Bukhari.
While Bukhari would train javelin throwers at almost every available ground in Lahore including the Punjab Athletics Association athletics track near the Gaddafi Stadium, it was Arshad’s bronze medal in Asian Games and Tokyo Olympics participation, which has seen interest in javelin grow in Pakistan.
“I have seen times when I would travel on my motorbike carrying the javelin and going to train near the river bank and ground and people asking me, ‘What sport do you play with these poles?’. At that time, I was friends with Indian champion Ramandeep Singh who would throw in excess of 80 m regularly. I would always dream about a day when Pakistani youth aspire to be a javelin thrower. Arshad and your champion Neeraj Chopra have helped us achieve the dream,” remembers the coach.
Within three years of crossing the 70 m mark in 2015, Arshad crossed the 80 m mark with a throw of 80.75 m in Asian Games in Jakarta in 2018. The last four years have seen Arshad crossing the 85 m mark four times with a best of 86.38 m throw in Imam Reza Cup in Iran last year.
Bukhari remembers the first time Nadeem and Neeraj competed against each other. “It was in the 2016 South Asain Games in Guwahati that Neeraj and Nadeem competed against each other where Neeraj won the gold and Arshad won the bronze. Later, it was in the Asian Championships in Bhubaneswar in 2017 that they competed together. Javelin throwers in Pakistan as well your country India are well-knitted and each one of us would observe each other. It was the same with Arshad watching Chopra. When Arshad won the bronze medal in Asian Games in Jakarta and Neeraj Chopra congratulated him, he was not only giving him respect as a Pakistani athlete but also as a javelin thrower,” says Bukhari.
“Whatever Neeraj achieved post the junior world gold is due to his sheer hard work and we Pakistanis also appreciate that. When Neeraj topped his respective qualification group in Tokyo and Arshad topped the second qualification group, the talk was about Neeraj versus Arshad. And this also helps in creating more awareness among youth for javelin whether one sees it as a competition or a healthy rivalry.”
While Bukhari remained in Lahore due to a last minute decision by the Pakistan Olympics Association, he hopes the CWG medal will create the same ripple effect in Pakistan as Chopra’s gold medal did in India. “After Arshad’s Asian Games bronze and Tokyo Olympics qualification topping, I can say I get to see 30-40 javelin throwers in almost each training ground in Lahore. In recent months, I have seen youth coming from the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and from near the Pakistan-China border areas come to enquire about trials at Lahore. What Neeraj did for India, Arshad’s Olympic participation and today’s record can do the same in Pakistan,” says the coach.
And with his ward now crossing the 90 m mark and Chopra too getting closer to the 90 m, the coach has one desire. “Most of the time, Arshad trains at the Jinnah Stadium in Islamabad and Lahore too, my wish is to see Arshad and Neeraj compete at a packed stadium in Lahore or Islamabad. Neeraj is also like our son. I as a Pakistani promise you that if Neeraj wins, we will shower him the same love we showered on Milkha Singh Ji when he won against Abdul Khaliq in Lahore in 1960. Athletes share a common bond of love for the sports,” says Bukhari.