HARARE – Zimbabwe legendary swimmer Kirsty Coventry has begged to differ with sports minister Makhosini Hlongwane’s assessment of Team Zimbabwe’s performance at last year’s summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Team Zimbabwe delegation comprising 57-members made up of 26 officials and 31 athletes failed to garner any medal at last year’s Olympics.
The closest Zimbabwe came to winning a medal was in swimming where Coventry, 32, swimming in her final Olympics event made it into the 200m backstroke final but finished in sixth place.
Rower Micheen Thornycroft better her 14th place finish at the London 2012 Games to claim position 11 overall as she finished fifth in the B final while her male counterpart Andrew Peebles claimed first place in the E single sculls men final to finish 25th overall.
Sprinter Gabriel Mvumvure missed the 100m semi-finals after seventh in his heat, women long distance runner Rutendo Nyahora was in top 100 after getting position number 92 while the Mighty Warriors playing in their maiden Olympics managed to score a goal in every game they played although they went on to lose all their matches of the campaign.
Coventry herself said she was in hospital four months before Rio after she dislocated her knee with internationally-acclaimed doctors telling her that she was not going to participate in Brazil as she needed surgery which would rule her out for a year and two months after that she was also hospitalised with pneumonia.
In his post-mortem, Hlongwane said “we simply failed” in one of the headlines in the local papers.
Coventry, during a media workshop organised by the Zimbabwe Olympic Committee (Zoc) and their Norwegian counterparts in collaboration with the Sports Journalists Association in Harare recently said the stories should not only be written about the athletes and their failure instead all stakeholders should be held accountable because they all play a different role.
“When I typed into google Team Zimbabwe Rio the first thing that came up was the article with honourable minister saying that ‘we simply failed.’ I remember reading the article last year but I had to go back and just have a re-look at things. We had our top place finish in rowing ever from the previous Olympics they had moved up. We had our first equestrian horse rider who started worse and moved up 50-something places. We had our runners doing extremely well and I was able to come sixth in my fifth and final Olympic Games where I was swimming against children, I knew it was gonna be difficult,” Coventry told the conference.
“For me, I knew going in that obviously the goal being a competitive person was to win a medal but I knew the realistic realisation of that was extremely hard but I wanted to finish when I knew I had two-and-a-half-to-three years of solid full preparations, full support, full training…and we had the opportunity to tell that story but we didn’t take it we had to take those opportunities that were given to us.”
The most decorated African Olympian with seven medals and the only Zimbabwean to win individual Olympics medals won back to back golds in 2004 Athens and 2008 Beijing Games as well as three silver and two bronze leapt in defence of the women soccer team the Mighty Warriors.
This is a team whose preparations were nothing much to write home about and their camping was characterised with logistical challenges that even saw the women sharing a loaf each player getting to eat at least two slices of bread.
“We obviously had a big team in Rio with our women soccer there. We don’t even have a true professional women’s league so how we qualified is incredible — quite inspirational, that is giving hope to so many young girls in and throughout our country that anything is possible. But back home they saw athletes’ failure, poor showing from our women’s football, what showing did we expect? I’m sorry where was the finance? Where was that finance given? That question is still hard to come by for me it has never been answered, where was Zifa, where were they? The last time that I heard was that our women’s funding was pulled and it is going back to the men, why?” Coventry added.
“We (women) were the only ones and I will say this numerous times — women athletes are the only ones that have won in representing Zimbabwe at the highest level and the only ones who have won medals for this country. That is just so unfair for those athletes. Those athletes were thrown together, sent overseas and put into a group of other countries that had been practising together as a team, training together as a team, competing together as a team at least two years before that Olympic came and our team were practising how many months before, weeks before?
“And as a country we expected what, medals, are we crazy? That is so unfair for us as media to write, to have those above tide expectations set of our athletes when we all know we have followed sport, we all know that the chances of that happening, so what were we doing? We were setting up those athletes for straight up failure? I typed our women soccer Rio and it was actually quite sad to see the number of negative reports locally that we had here versus the amount of positive reports that we had internationally.
“It was incredible the respect that our women’s football team was given because people knew and understood what the team had gone through just to get there. That they weren’t playing on a level playing field.”
Instead of treating the Mighty Warriors as villains, Coventry said the girls had infact put Zimbabwe on the map. The Mighty Warriors lost 1-6 to Germany in their opening match in Sao Paulo before losing 3-1 to Canada and another 6-1 loss against Australia.
“We have to come together as all stakeholders as Zoc, as athletes, as media, as Sports ministry, as government, as a nation to say this is what we want for our athletes, this is how we believe we can help our athletes and by the way they (Mighty Warriors) didn’t just fail, they did extremely well under extremely hard and tough competition,” Coventry said.
“…they walked away with so much respect from every single venue they competed in and by the way, they just put Zimbabwe on the map because those soccer stadiums that were sold out had hundreds of people who had no idea where Zimbabwe was or what we were like or what our country was like and we had strong independent women holding their heads high walking off the field wearing smiling vibrant and none of that was reported so we lost an opportunity.”