Pioneer of Spirit and Athleticism

Major General Syed Ali Hamid on the life and achievements of Muhammad Yaqub, Pakistan’s 400-meter hurdler

Pioneer of Spirit and Athleticism
In the first two decades after Independence, Pakistan’s athletes competed in 54 competitions around the world – the Summer Olympics, Asian and Commonwealth Games, International and Military Athletic Meets, and so on. The majority of athletes trained by the Pakistan Army during this period were from the Potohar region, which for over 150 years has been a traditional recruiting ground. Its men are tall, slim and very hardy. The region was economically depressed with a weak infrastructure and it was not unusual for lads to walk 8 to 10 km to school every day and double the distance to catch a bus or train. All they needed was good coaching with a healthy diet to train them for athletics. And both were provided by the Army.

The Pakistan Army followed the British India Army’s policy of recognizing sport as an essential component of esprit de corps and encouraging a healthy rivalry. Under Brigadier Cuthbert Rodham’s stewardship, on whom I wrote a detailed article, Pakistani athletes became famous. Pakistan’s contingent was only second to Japan and above India at the 3rd Asian Games in Tokyo in 1958. Of its 26 medals which included the Gold in Hockey, its athletes won 5 Gold, 4 Silver and 4 Bronze. Havildar Muhammad Yaqub, Pakistan Army Engineers competed in the 400 meter hurdles – a demanding lap of the stadium (measured on the inside lane), with ten hurdles.

Hav Muhammad Yaqub (400 m Hurdles and 4x400m Relay) is third from left in the middle row

The Pakistan Army followed the British India Army’s policy of recognizing sport as an essential component of esprit de corps and encouraging a healthy rivalry

Yaqub was born in Dawri, a small village in the Rawalpindi District and only a few kilometers from Takti where Shahamad Khan a VC from the First World War lies buried. This district supported the British India Army with the greatest number of soldiers in the two World Wars. At the outset of World War II at the tender age of 14, he enlisted in the Boys Battalion of the Indian Corps of Engineers. General Auchinleck, C-in-C India, personally wrote the Boys Training Scheme Directive, which concentrated only on general education and was instrumental in the high standards of recruits at the Center and the development of tradesmen at the Engineering School. It also provided an excellent base from which sportsmen could be identified and trained.

He qualified as a Draughtsman from Recruit Training Center at Rorkee in 1942 and between 1944 and 1946 he was on active service first in Burma and later with the Indian units sent to Indonesia to combat the Nationalists. At Independence, he transferred to Royal Pakistan Army Corps of Engineers whose Centre and School was initially established at Sialkot. The army was widely involved in settling refugees from India and Yaqub worked in Narowal following which he operated in Kashmir during the 1948 War. The Army had decided to continue the Boys Training Scheme and in the early 1950s, he was posted to the Engineer’s Boys Battalion. In addition to education, the training was aimed at developing the character of young lads from rural areas, and Yaqub must have been one of the best NCOs in the Corps to be chosen for this assignment. This is borne out by the fact that he was also chosen to represent his corps in the contingent of the Pakistan Armed Forces who attended Queen Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953. They stayed at the Army Training Centre at Pirbright, Surrey, and were visited by Prince Phillip and other dignitaries. The train for London 48 km away, was boarded from Brookwood, the site of the largest Commonwealth cemetery in UK with more than 5,000 graves from the First and Second World War. It must have been a heady experience for the members of the Pakistan Contingent. On the day of the ceremony, the 3 km long procession of 16,000 participants was greeted by a crowd of three million lining the streets.

Some of the international and national medals won by Hony Capt Yaqub during the course of his athetlics career

Yaqub was sociable and a great ambassador for Pakistan. At Pirbright he made friends with members of the Australian Contingent and 32 years later he was invited to their reunion at Adelaide in 1985. The invite was lost in the mail, sadly, and arrived too late for him to attend. While at Pitbright, he was also befriended by the Rothwells, a British couple that he met at a band display by the Pakistani Contingent. They became very interested in Pakistan and invited him home for tea. From then on, the Rothwells not only corresponded with him, but also with his mother and younger brother, and would come and see him play at the White City Stadium in London meetings. In fact, they grew so fond of him that they “adopted” him. The stadium had been constructed for the 1908 Summer Olympics and in 1957, Yaqub won the Bronze in the 400 meter hurdles during the invitational races that were held parallel with the British Vs Soviet Union Athletics.

It’s possible that he was picked up for training as an athlete while working with the Boys Battalion or even earlier and found his speed in the 400 meter hurdles. The 400 meter hurdles require intense training to get the endurance, speed and hurdling technique needed to compete. Yaqub had a good height of 5’ 10” that enabled him to develop a stride pattern close to the ideal of 15 steps between hurdles. Anything less slows the hurdler.  The 400 meter hurdle has five phases (each between two hurdles) and each phase needs a different rhythm as fatigue sets in and speed decreases. Therefore, it demands a concentration that Yaqub could muster from beginning to end. Though he performed best in hurdles, Yaqub also competed in flat races as well as the 400 meter relay. In 1954 he won his first medal, a Bronze in the 400 meter hurdles in Montgomery (now Sahiwal) and in the next two years, he competed in two more national level athletic championships. The first was in Dhaka in 1955 where he won the Silver in the 400 meter hurdle and his team won Gold in the 400 meter relay. A year later he eventually won the Gold in the 400 meter hurdle at Lahore and broke the national record with 53.1 seconds.

Havildar Muhammad Yaqub, Pakistan Army Engineers, practising for the 400m Hurdles at the Melbourne Olympics, 1956

Pakistan’s athletes’ participation in international events/meets was initially small, but by 1954 they had attained a skill level that allowed 18 to participate in Manila’s “Asiad”. They proved to be a success with Havildar Khaliq winning the Gold by setting a new record of 10.6 seconds in the 100 meters and earning the title of the Fastest Man in Asia. Pakistani athletes won three more Gold and a total of eight medals. Yaqub was not at the games in Manila but having broken the national record in 1956, he qualified for the Summer Olympics in Melbourne that year.

This was Yaqub’s first major international event. Though he won Gold in the 400 meter flat race at the pre-Olympics athletics on a grass track at Bedingo, Victoria, he was eliminated in the heats of the 400 meter hurdle during the Olympics. His time of 53.1 was only two seconds short of the athlete who won the Gold. The five S’s of athletics are: stamina, speed, strength, skill, and the greatest is “spirit” which Yaqub possessed in abundant proportion. A year later at an international meet at Tehran, 18 Pakistani athletes won almost all the track and field events and Yaqub captured the Gold in the 400 meter hurdle. Though he didn’t win a medal at the 1958 Asiad in Japan, he improved his record with 52.9 seconds. On the way back, however, he ran the hurdles at Hong Kong’s International Athletics Meet and won a Gold. At the Rome Olympics in 1960, he was again eliminated in the heats. Winning margins in athletics are very narrow and his time of 59.91 seconds was only .93 seconds slower than the winner of the heat and 3.4 seconds slower than the Gold medalist, the great American Hurdler Glen Davis who won three Golds. Yaqub’s record remained unbeaten in Pakistan till 1978.

Naik Muhammad Yaqub, Pakistan Army Engineers (in circle) with other soldiers of Pakistan's Queen's Coronation Contingent, Brookwood Station, UK (1953)

By 1962, Yaqub was 34 years old and having passed his prime as an athlete, returned to full-time soldiering with the 6th Engineer Battalion. For two years he worked on the construction of the Wali Tangi and Kach Dams in Balochistan and during the 1965 War he was at the bridges over the BRB Canal in Kasur. He subsequently served in East Pakistan and by 1969 he was a company subedar at Training Battalion of the Engineer Center. During 1971, his assignment was on the construction of the Karakorum Highway and retired as honorary captain in 1978, the highest possible rank a Junior Commissioned officer could attain. For the next ten years he was employed as an Assistant Welfare Officer at the Khan Research Laboratories.

In 1991, on a tour to Pakistan, Lieutenant General Nuruddin Khan, COAS Bangladesh Army, visited his former unit, the 6th Engineer Battalion. In his speech, the COAS paid tribute to those who he had served with in this unit. He had become very fond of Yaqub, his company subedar, when the COAS was a company commander. He mentioned Yaqub many times and asked to express his best wishes. The letter subsequently sent by the battalion is retained by his family. The COAS remembered the JCO even 20 years after leaving the Pakistan Army. This honour was worthy of Yaqub. He was an excellent human being, a dedicated professional and an outstanding athlete who took both victory and the agony of defeat in his stride. He hadn’t lost the passion for the track thirty-seven years after he retired from competitive athletics. In 1999, as part of the “Year of Old People,” the UN held a contest for senior citizens. At the age of 73, Yaqub took part and won the 50 meter and 100 meter races.

Gen Ahsan Hayat, COAS Pakistan Army, meeting Allah Ditta at the Engineer Reunion in 2005. He was a close friend of Hony Capt Yaqub, who is standing on the right­

Yaqub had a good height of 5’ 10” that enabled him to develop a stride pattern close to the ideal of 15 steps between hurdles. Anything less slows the hurdler

In 2005, Yaqub was treated with great honor by the Engineer Center in Risalpur at a Reunion. He was also accompanied by his close friend Allah Ditta from the Corps of Engineers, about whom Yaqub, now 80, would jokingly remark is the only “alive” friend with whom he was left. The Engineer Center named the gymnasium after Yaqub in recognition of his professionalism and achievements in sports. He was also extremely pleased to be nominated for a Civil Award five years later, but his health did not allow him to receive it. In April 2014, Honourary Captain Muhammad Yaqub died. Over nearly two decades he had suffered from Parkinson’s, leaving him in his last days frail and very dependent.

Such is the way of all flesh, but he left his mark on both the national and international sports arena for which the nation and the Pakistan Army owe him a heavy debt of gratitude.

From the moment of birth, you stood tall

with balance and strength. You ran strong

for the love of freedom. You were above all

(More than an Athlete by Lisa Ricci)