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ISLAMABAD: For Pakistani athlete Rabia Ashiq, the Olympics are not about glory or medals — she knows she has no chance — but honouring a close friend and teammate who died in tragic circumstances.
When the 20-year-old, one of only two female competitors at the London Games from the conservative Muslim country, takes to the track for the 800-metre heats on August 8, she will run in memory of sprinter Mubeen Akhtar.
Akhtar was declared Pakistan’s fastest woman when she bagged the 100 and 200-metre titles at the national championships, but just a month later, in June, she was found dead in her Lahore home.
The circumstances surrounding her death at age 20 are still unclear — her family said she fell down the stairs, but there have been claims of suicide in local media.
Whatever the sad truth, Ashiq is determined to honour Akhtar’s memory by giving her best on the highest stage of all.
“She was a close friend and her death shook all of us,” Ashiq told reporters before leaving for Britain. “When I go on the track I will remember her and I will run in her memory.”
Pakistan’s athletes failed to qualify for the Olympics but the International Olympic Committee gives wildcards to member countries to allow them to compete.
“I am not a medal contender, I know that, but I want to dedicate my Olympic appearance to Mubeen because she was very happy when I was given the wildcard to represent Pakistan,” Ashiq said.
“Mubeen is the motivation for me to try to do well in my event. I want to make her, mycoach Bushra Parveen and all the women in Pakistan proud. It will be a great moment for me.”
Pakistan’s other female participant will be swimmer Anum Banday, also a wildcard. The late Akhtar had not been expecting to join them.
Pakistan’s only chance of winning a medal lies in field hockey.
They have won three Olympic golds, three silvers and two bronzes in the event — the last coming at Barcelona in 1992 — as well as a wrestling bronze in 1960 and a boxing bronze in 1988.
Ashiq wants to continue the lineage of women’s participation in the Olympics, in a country which frowns upon women taking part in field events.
It was only in 1996 that the government of then-prime minister Benazir Bhutto — Pakistan’s only female premier — defied tradition to send Shabana Akhtar as the first woman athlete from Pakistan to go to the Olympics.
Although the long jumper lagged well behind in competition, she was a pioneer.
Since then, Shazia Hidayat competed in the 1,500 metres in the 2000 Sydney Olympics, followed by Sumeria Zahoor in the same event at Athens 2004 and Sadaf Siddiqui in the 100 metres in Beijing four years ago — all were mere also-rans.
Ashiq knows she will suffer the same fate, but she is undaunted and has set her own goals.
“I want to run 2:02.00 at the Olympics,” said Ashiq, hoping to smash the national record of 2:08.04 set by her coach Parveen in 2006, but still nearly 10 seconds off theworld record.
“I want to make a difference in the record books — if not at the international level, then at least at the national level.”
To conform with Muslim beliefs about modesty, Ashiq competes wearing leggings, but in Pakistan, male spectators are barred from watching female sports and she was nervous about having the eyes of the world on her in London.
To get over this, she trained with men — an idea put forward by her coach.
“Now my biggest dream is close to being realised and while I’m excited, the feeling is accompanied by tension and anxiety,” she said.
“I’ll enjoy my time in London and watch all the track and field events in order to learn from the best, and memories of my friends will be with me.”
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