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Medal for obduracy, nothing for athletes

IndependentSport View Darlington Majonga

THE 18th Commonwealth Games began in the Australian city of Melbourne this week with Zimbabwe a conspicuous absentee from the multi-sport extravaganza that groups almost exclusively former British colonies.


seceded from the Commonwealth in December 2003 in frustration over the country’s suspension from the group.

Zanu PF and government bootlickers applauded the bluster to pull the rug from under the Commonwealth’s feet — although the same aficionados battled to prove even to themselves that the brickbats that flew Zimbabwe’s way had nothing to do with President Robert Mugabe’s fast-growing fascist persona.

“How does Zimbabwe get damaged by quitting the Commonwealth?” one of Mugabe’s cronies asked. “What were the advantages to Zimbabwe in the first place, apart from the actions of camaraderie?”

True, the Commonwealth at times appears to be nothing more than a social movement with no common wealth to be shared. With an annual budget of less than US$50 million, the Commonwealth provides little in terms of economic help although it does cultivate technical cooperation and educational ties.

But the political stage the Commonwealth offers has been critical in keeping overweening peers — for example Pakistan’s Pervez Musharraf — under pressure to repent and do the right thing.

The Commonwealth has been successful in bringing about democratic change in South Africa and Fiji. Suffering Zimbabweans have thus lost an important voice that could have continued to embarrass our leader by holding up the template of the Harare Declaration.

The 1934 Commonwealth Games — then known as the Empire Games — that had been awarded to Johannesburg were moved to London to prevent a political crisis concerning the way South Africa might greet and treat black and Asian athletes.

South Africa did not take part at the Games from 1958 until its readmission in 1994, but Nigeria boycotted the 1978 Games because of New Zealand’s sporting contacts with South Africa.

The 1986 Games in Edinburgh were similarly marred by a boycott by 32 countries — most of them from Africa, Asia and the Caribbean — because of the British government’s reluctance to slap sanctions on South Africa.

So despite their reputation as the “friendly games”, the Commonwealth Games have played an influential role since their inauguration in 1930.

Though Mugabe might have seen the Commonwealth as nothing more than an imperial anachronism, the four-yearly Games still serve as a springboard for many athletes whose chance of international exposure elsewhere would be remote.
You can imagine what such an international stage would mean to Zimbabwean athletes who, we are afraid, can only hear of exposure as far as HIV and Aids is concerned.

With 17 sporting disciplines embracing 70 associations from 53 nations, the Games offer an important international stage that would mean so much to Zimbabwe’s poor athletes to show the world what they can achieve.

Zimbabwe’s withdrawal from the Commonwealth has robbed world swimming champion Kirsty Coventry of another chance to inspire her compatriots. It was at these Games that Coventry first proved she would be a world-beater when she participated at the 1998 edition in Malaysia — though she did not win any medal.

Coventry returned to the Games four years later where she was to break a record in winning gold in the 200m individual medley in Manchester.

There’s no doubt that this time round Coventry would have emerged with not one gold but many medals from Melbourne after her Olympic and World Championship conquests over the last two years.

Zimbabwe has been fairly successful at the Games since its debut in 1934 as Rhodesia. The country has amassed seven gold, 15 silver and 22 bronze to total 44 medals at the Games up to the Manchester edition in 2002.

Since Independence from Britain in 1980, Zimbabwe had only missed the Edinburgh Games in 1986 as one of the countries that boycotted over apartheid South Africa. Ten years later, Zimbabwe is not part of the “friendly games” for a different reason.

The Melbourne Games would have meant as much to Zimbabwe’s budding talents as they meant to the lawn bowls team that won the country its first gold medal after Independence in 1982.

Our athletes will remember what it meant to Tracy Cox-Smyth to win silver in diving at the 1990 edition while Nokuthula Tshabangu earned silver in the flyweight boxing category as Duke Chinyadza settled for bronze in the light welterweight division.

Probably Tendai Chimusasa has fond memories to tell us of how he felt when he took silver in the 10 000m marathon at the 1994 Games as much as Phillimon Hanneck might cherish his silver in the 5 000m. The same goes for Savieri Ngidhi who returned home with bronze in the 800m dash.

Many of us will remember how Evan Stewart inspired young divers after his exploits on the springboard earned him silver and bronze at the same Games. A boxer called Ezwell Ndlovu also proved Zimbabweans were no mere pushovers when he settled for bronze in the heavyweight category.

Stewart was to return invigorated for the 1998 edition in Malaysia where he sprang to gold in the one-metre diving contest. Roy Garden claimed Zimbabwe’s other gold in the men’s singles lawn bowls.

Sadly that was the last time Zimbabwe were to get medals in the track when Julia Sakala won bronze in the 1 500m run, Samukeliso Moyo the same colour in the 5 000m, while Kenneth Harnden claimed bronze in the 400m hurdles.

Zimbabwe could not go beyond Coventry’s gold and Connie Sibanda’s silver in the women’s blind singles lawn bowls in Manchester, but the most important thing was that the country’s athletes had been afforded a chance to taste proper international competition.

So while Mugabe and his hangers-on rumble on with their soporific rhetoric about Tony Blair wanting to recolonise Zimbabwe, they should be reminded that they denied our athletes an international platform to showcase their talents.

There is still a lot to be gained especially for poor countries such as Zimbabwe. There is still the pride and opportunity to hone one’s skills.

The Commonwealth Games offer no big monetary rewards, but the competition is not cheap at all. Kenyan athletes have utilised the platform well, which is why they have become renowned long-distance athletes.

Our athletics, swimming, cycling, boxing, rugby, squash, netball and lawn bowls would never be the same if we were to compete at the Games.

It is our hope that when the Zimbabwe Olympic Committee convenes for a consultative meeting next week, or when the Annual National Sports Awards ceremony is held tonight,  some people will spare a thought for our athletes who were denied the opportunity to compete in Melbourne because of one man’s obduracy.

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