Pakistan at Paralympics: ‘We need attention and investment’

“My biggest goal is to win the medal here in Tokyo of course,” Pakistan’s premier women paralympian Anila Izzat Baig asserts herself as she talks about how it is her second time in Tokyo and how her ambition is her driving force so far, not just for herself as an athlete, but for being a Pakistani and a woman.

Anila is one of the two paralympians who are representing Pakistan at the Paralympics in Tokyo.

Anila will be competing in her discus throw event in category F64 on Sunday in the early hours, according to the Pakistan time.

The Faisalabad-based paralympian feels that so far the training in Tokyo, since the three-member contingent have arrived for the Games, have been going well but her thoughts are filled with gratitude and worry at the same time for the future.

“We are training here in Tokyo yes, and this has been great,” Anila told The Express Tribune. “I’m very grateful to the National Paralympics Committee (NPC) of Pakistan who really helped us. I’m here because of them.

She is in Tokyo with Pakistani Paralympics legend Haider Ali, who became the first and the only Pakistani to win a medal at Paralympics Summer Games in 2008 (silver) and again in Rio in 2016.

Anila is making her debut in Paralympics, and she qualified for it through the event in Dubai in 2019. Meanwhile, she remembers her journey vividly as to what representing Pakistan means and how she became an athlete.

“I started getting into sports when I was in the school, Government Girls High School, and there I had my fellow athlete and coach Mudassir Baig. He told me that if I really am interested in sports I should contact the NPC. I contacted them and that is how my journey started. They guided me and back in 2009, I even came to Tokyo for an event. Now I’m here again and this feels surreal, but it is motivating that I can win a medal here again, like I did before.”

Anila is an inspirational individual. The 26-year-old contracted polio when she was just seven months old. Before picking sports at school, she says that at first she had to convince her father and her brothers.

“I spoke to my family about it. At first there was some resistance, but then they started to support me. I spoke to my father and then my brothers and I explained that I am really passionate about it,” said Anila.

She said that when she was younger she saw other girls participate in sports and play games, and that made her want to play too. Soon enough, after participating in national events too, sports became her passion.

The spirited young woman that Anila is, she works at a Textile factory as a folder, where she needs to stand for hours at stretch, a job that she needs to earn money. But it is also the reason that she barely had few days to train for the Tokyo Games.

Training itself is a challenge as she barley gets time once she returns from her day job, but it doesn’t stop her from dreaming. She mostly finds her motivation, despite the impossible circumstances, by keeping her passion alive and strong.

“There had been a lot of trouble for us to even train. There was Covid-19, but then the camp also started late because of the lack of the resources. We trained for 10 days, in the eventing mostly, for a couple of hours. Some of it happened in Faisalabad and then in Lahore. Then I also had to make sure that I give extra to the training, as I also have a job where I have to stand for hours. I work in folding at a textile factory. I’ve had that job for a year now, so there are a lot of challenges,” said Anila. “My job is very tough, it is all very tough.”

But she wants to appeal to the Government of Pakistan to look at the achievements of para-athletes and focus on the betterment of the community.

“[Government should] support the NPC. They have been working with us. Support them. We have no funds so that is my only appeal.

“The Government does not even look at the issues. They just follow the hype, but what they actually need to do is address the issues we are facing. We need your attention, investment and help,” said Anila.

Sending Anila and Haider to Tokyo had been a challenge for the NPC too as the tickets for the two came only few days before they were scheduled to fly, all because of the lack of funds and lack of institutional support to the NPC.

Girls need to play, move forward

Anila is fighting a fight that is bigger than most can imagine, and societal norms make it tougher.

“As far as the society is concerned, they don’t’ look at girls playing sports as something good. People look at it in a bad way,” said Anila, sharing her experience. “They want us to sit at home, they want us to get married, but all I want to say is that if the girls get the support from their parents then it will get easy. Women need to go forward in sports. I want to ask the government to also look at our issues and solve them, for our better future.”

She feels that she can have a good chance at the medal in Tokyo but when it comes to her favourite athletes, she names Shoaib Akhtar. However, she also acknowledges her two coaches Mudassir and Akbar, who have inspired her to do better at sports.

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