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Pakistan’s Boxing Triumph

Eight writers on the meaning of Olympic sports. Part 7: Boxing.

Zemler / Shutterstock

In September 1988, Pakistan sent a boxer named Hussain Shah to the Olympics in Seoul. Barely literate and living in a shanty in Lyari, one of Karachi’s most fetid slums, he was not expected to win. He had been practicing his sport in dimly lit clubs with naked light bulbs, and lacked high-tech or even new equipment. Shah had shown promise, winning the gold in the South Asian games at the age of 23 the year before. But the Olympics were a different prospect. The event brings athletes from rich countries, who have entire teams of coaches and the very best gear—a difficult set of opponents to go up against.

The semi-final round of the middle-weight boxing division was held on September 29, 1988. Shah beat boxers from Mexico and Hungary on his way there. For this match, he was up against Canadian Egerton Marcus, both men achingly close to glory. Shah fought hard but he did not win that fight. He did however win his matchup for the bronze medal. For millions of Pakistanis, including kids like me, it was a moment of near unprecedented glory. For the first time since 1960, a Pakistani athlete made it to the medal podium in an individual sport. When Shah returned to Karachi following the games, a near homeless man from a slum had become a national hero.

While boxing enjoyed a brief renaissance following Shah’s 1988 win, it suffers from a lack of resources, like most other sports in Pakistan. The great Muhammad Ali is a hero here, followed by Hussain Shah himself. Last year saw the first Women’s Boxing Coaching Camp, an official attempt to teach Pakistani women how to fight. In a small building still under construction, thirteen girls, some as young as nine and twelve years old learned how to bob and weave.

In the Rio Olympics this year, Pakistani kids will watch for that fleeting moment when their flag and their delegation appears on the screen during the opening ceremony. Pakistan is sending one of the smallest delegations ever this year, but it does include Shah Hussain Shah, the son of boxer Hussain Shah, who will be the first Pakistani to compete in Judo. He is not expected to win, but then neither was his father.