Bangladesh, Olympics and national pride
August 26, 2012
M. Serajul Islam
The Prime Minister’s feelings of national passion when she saw the small contingent of Bangladeshi athletes walk into the stadium touched a sympathetic chord in a lot of people in the country. In a TV Talk Show, participants were in consensus in expressing that like the Prime Minister, their hearts too fluttered when they saw the Bangladesh team in the stadium flying the Bangladesh flag.
With the risk of offending some of the readers, the expression of national passion over the small contingent of Bangladeshi athletes in London was misplaced. The cliché that it is more important to take part in a game than to win does not reflect the frustration that is there that we should acknowledge. We have never won a medal in the Olympics and the way things are, our national passion notwithstanding, we will perhaps not win one in the lifetime of many of us.
There was a story that made its run on the internet on Yahoo! Sports page on this frustration. The story was captioned “Bangladesh is the largest nation in the world to never win a medal but it has four athletes in London.” The story went on to mention that Bangladesh is the eighth biggest country in the world “but its Olympic futility is so bad it makes one wonder if a statistical mistake has been made.”
When the hearts of the Prime Minister and many Bangladeshis in the country and abroad beat faster with national pride, perhaps they did not know that since 1984 when Bangladesh first started sending participants to the Games, not one was allowed to participate based on merit. They were all there, including the 4 in this year’s games, because of the wild card system that allows some countries to send participants who have not qualified on merit.
The Yahoo story mentioned that the gymnast who represented Bangladesh had dual American and Bangladeshi citizenships who entered the games because an Indian gymnast was unable to participate because of improper paperwork on part of the Indian authorities. The story nevertheless states that this gymnast from Bangladesh, Syque Caesar, is an athlete with potentials “having won an NCAA teams title at the University of Michigan and won parallel bars gold at the Central South Asian Championships.”
Bangladesh has close to 8 million people living abroad. Of this number, many have made countries like USA and Great Britain their home. It is in these places that there may be hope for Bangladesh that someone like Syque Caesar would end the drought for Bangladesh and give the 8th largest country in the world its first medal. The hope of a Bangladeshi born and raised in Bangladesh winning an Olympic medal seems a forlorn one. The Yahoo story’s pitch was also in the fact that despite its huge population, Bangladesh is hardly a sporting nation and the game that is the national passion, namely cricket, is not an Olympic game. Even in cricket, the story goes on to underpin the fact that Bangladesh is “ranked 9th out of the 9 teams that play the game at the highest level.”
Therefore, sad as it is, our participation in the Olympics should not be a subject for arousing national pride. As a nation, we may not be much in terms of winning a medal in the Olympics. However, we have a lot to be proud in many things we have achieved. A nation that has won independence the way we have, we need not un-necessarily bring such issues as Olympics to make a show of our pride as a nation. In 1971, pitched against the world, Bangladesh achieved freedom by coming together as a nation. The call of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman united the people of Bangladesh in such a way that not even threat of death and genocide of the Pakistani military forces could deter them from their fight for liberation and independence.
In recent times, we have seen the government using national pride to get the people behind the government without unfortunately uniting the nation. At least two choices are before us to make an assessment of its use of national pride and whether this is helping the government and the country. The Prime Minister has used Bangla for this purpose; in her attempt at making it an official language of the United Nations. Then again when the World Bank cancelled the loan for the Padma Bridge, the government fell on national pride to get the people behind it.
The Prime Minister must be felicitated for choosing to speak in Bangla at the United Nations during her statements at the UNGA sessions. Her father also did the same. In fact it is his precedence that she has been following. However, the Prime Minister has gone ahead and demanded that Bengali should be made an official language of the United Nations based on the fact that it is spoken by almost 160 million people of Bangladesh and 130 million in West Bengal or Paschim Bangla.
The demand can hardly be faulted on emotions. Nor can it be faulted on numbers. However if numbers and emotions were to guide decisions in international relations then we would have quite a different world than the one we are living in. In demanding that Bangla be made an official UN language, important issues have not been considered as emotion was allowed to precede reason. Bangladesh is still one of the world’s most impoverished nations where in current international relations, it is a minnow. Then, in taking Paschim Bangla on board, there have been no consultations with them. Yet they have been taken for granted!
With the Padma Bridge loan too, the government has tried to use national pride for people’s support after messing negotiations with the World Bank. Its insistence not to remove 3 officials including a Minister against whom the Bank had reasons of suspicion of corruption led to the mess up. Strangely, the three were eventually removed but by then the World Bank’s confidence on the nation was gone. The government’s attempt to arouse national passion after the WB cancellation failed to take on board half the nation that does not support the ruling party. The Finance Minister’s attempts to placate the WB to reactivate it; the Communication Minister’s negotiations with Malaysia for loan and the Prime Minister’s call to the nation to build the Bridge from domestic resources gave the picture of a government lost in a mess it created itself.
National pride based a cause in which the nation believes as one is a very strong force to stand against the greatest of odds. The Prime Minister and her colleagues should spare themselves some time and consider why they have failed to carry the nation with them on the PB, the move to make Bangla a UN language and on even the Prime Minister’s passion on the Olympics. Since becoming the Prime Minister, she has made every attempt to write the opposition off by all the means available to the government forgetting that they carry half the nation with them. At the same time, the causes she has taken to unite the nations up have also been poor ones.
The Prime Minister has failed in arousing national pride primarily because she carries, thanks to her own choice, not the nation but the supporters of her own party which unfortunately for her, is half the nation or at this fag end of the her party’s AL rule, perhaps much less.
The writer is a retired carrier diplomat and Ambassador to Japan.