“I did try my best but I feel winning gold was just not my fate,” exclaimed Arshad Nadeem, the man who has brought Pakistan on the map in athletics single-handedly.
In all fairness, his silver medal at the World Athletics Championships in Budapest last Sunday was more significant than even a platinum medal.
The brilliant javelin thrower made history as he became the first Pakistani to win a medal at the World Championships, his impressive 87.82m throw in the first event since August 22.
The entire nation celebrated his medal and felt proud of Arshad’s magnificent feat.
The detractors, however, tried to dampen the euphoria created in the wake of his achievement and were quick to point out that Arshad was not seen carrying the Pakistan flag at the podium.
There was a slight controversy back home about the missing flag since both Neeraj Chopra of Indha and bronze medallist Jakub Vadlejch were wrapped in their respective national flags.
Arshad was candid about the whole thing and said: “There is no story to this or any untoward incident, I promise. It was just that I had packed my belongings right after the event and the flag was in my bag too.
“I didn’t know the photos and the medal ceremony would start immediately after the event. So, when those pictures were being taken, I decided to go ahead instead of going all the way to my bag placed a little further. I felt it would not be nice to keep others waiting. But I had the flag,” assured Arshad. “I took it out later.”
“In the end, all that matter are the prayers.”
And the prayers indeed held Arshad in good stead. The genial giant from Mian Chunnu had battled a right knee injury just a few months before the world championships.
Earlier, he had gone through the rehabilitation stage after his surgeries on the elbow and left knee for the long-standing injuries that he had sustained even before the 2020 Olympics.
And yet Arshad rose to the huge occasion and clinched the silver to the delight of his millions of fans back home.
This is absolutely amazing, that a javelin thrower coming from a country that is cricket-centric, without enough support or major sponsorship makes such a massive impact at the international level.
Arshad had trained entirely in Lahore fighting against the pain and working around his injury without the facilities and resources that are at the disposal of the competitors he faced at the elite level.
“I am just grateful that I got to make history, that I finally won a medal at this stage, I did all I could, I felt my body was capable of a big throw that I could go further than this, I was really going for that gold medal after a point,” Arshad told The Express Tribune from his home in Khanewal.
When pointed out about the disparity between the resources he got compared to his opponents he agreed that the difference is vast, but he made his best effort despite it all.
“But I must admit the fact that it was just not in my fate, I was very much focusing on the gold medal because I had been so close to it. The margins weren’t that big, but I also knew that my competitors had had better season bests, like Jakub Vadlejch for example, and it was a tough spot.
“Some competitors had touched 88m and more in the season before coming into the championship.”
But it was also the first time that any Pakistani had managed to directly qualify for the Olympics twice in a row.
“Of course, that was something I was happy about. It feels good to be having my spot at the Olympics again. It is my dream to win there as well,” said Arshad. He had booked his place in the Paris Olympics with his stellar throw of 86.79m at the qualification round in Budapest.
It has been a busy week for the 26-year-old, he has been back in Pakistan, and he has finally had a few days to be back with his family after more than two months.
The Budapest impact is a tale of two friends who are always together, both on and off the field. Even when they are competing for the medal at the same event too, there is always a palpable warmth between them.
“It was a great competition, but more than that I got excited because here we were the two Asians reigning the world championships, and that felt really good,” said Arshad of Chopra’s gold medal at the championships, one he missed by a mere distance of 0.35m.
“I was so happy for him as well because we have been friends since 2016. We share a very cordial relationship and even Indian fans have been very kind to me, the foreign media have also received me well. So, I feel we’ve done such a great job here. I am proud of us, I am grateful to my international fans as well.”
Arshad had started slowly with a first throw of 74.80m, much like his performance in the qualification round.
He threw his spear at 82.81m in his second attempt and sealed his silver medal with the third that flew to 87.82m, which remained his best and second best in the final, even though the last two throws came down to Neeraj and him for the gold.
“I wanted to throw my best, no one wants to throw at a short distance. I think it is a natural pattern here,” said Arshad.
In his three throws after that, it looked like Arshad wanted to repeat the feat from the Commonwealth Games 2022, where he had broken the 90m barrier.
“Yes, I was trying to break the record at the World Championships, it is 92.80m, so I wanted to touch that too in the final, but as I said it was just not in my fate on that day,” explained the history-maker. He added that the weather had been tough for all the throwers as well as being hot and without much wind to help them.
Arshad bowed out with a prayer and prostration after his sixth attempt, “I was just thanking Allah for this performance, I had been competing with a lot of focus but there were also fears.
“Like what if I push my knee too far and this injury would prolong and become more painful? I also wanted to achieve more, I had to keep up with how others were throwing, and mostly there was pressure like it was hard not to feel it, but there was always a pressure to do well and win. I was mostly trying to find a balance between protecting my knee and being ambitious. I thanked Allah for it because what if every silver medal was not for me? But here I was. I gave my all.”
It was a heartfelt call as Arshad spoke with this correspondent, with his children’s voice in the background. It had been a tough journey, mentally, physically, and emotionally but the Olympian says that this time around he was at ease with self-belief.
“I believe it is also because of my parents. My mother was so stressed the whole time when I was competing. He prays for me all the time, I can see my father is always supportive. He is proud of me. This means everything,” said Arshad.
“My children are still young, but I can see that they have started to understand that I compete at the top level, and right now they are so happy that I got a medal home.”
He said that he has seen a lot of enthusiasm among the youth after his performance back at home.
“The youngsters believe they can also make their mark like I did. I come from a tiny village; I worked hard to get where I am. They see me as an example. They are all happy,” said Arshad.
Eyes on the prize
Unlike Neeraj, who competed in Zurich after the World Championships, Arshad feels that he needs to concentrate on fitness again and avoid any risks as his targets are the Asian Games scheduled to start on September 23 in Hangzhou, and the Paris Olympics.
“I chose to come back home and not go ahead with Diamond League because I wanted to take care of my body.
“I felt that it was getting stiffer, and I could feel that I needed to hold back for the sake of my health and to make sure I am preparing in the best way possible to also give great performances at the Asian Games and the Olympics.”
“I will be back at the camp on Monday in Lahore, so there is a lot to discuss what kind of facilities can be made available for me,” said Arshad, hinting that the Athletics Federation of Pakistan will try to arrange a camp abroad, but nothing is confirmed.
On the other hand, Arshad applauded the step to have all the participating athletes take a dope test before the Asiad. He added that keeping a clean record of the country is paramount.
“This is good practice. It is better to find out about the athlete’s test before we compete in international events and then get the bad name,” concluded Arshad, who has emerged as the best athlete Pakistan has produced in the last decade. In the end, he dedicated his medal to the people of Pakistan and his coach Salman Butt.