BY winning four medals at the Beijing Olympic Games, Zimbabwean swimmer Kirsty Coventry has carved another chapter in the history books as the countryâ€™s greatest sportsperson of all time.
Yet, in hauling the latest batch of medals following her exploits at the Athens Games in 2004, local swimming followers from the old school will tell you Coventry is only fulfilling the countryâ€™s Olympic dream which should have been realised way back in 1968 by one John Keyter had it not been for political isolation.
While Coventry is now simply the greatest Zimbabwean swimmer and sportsperson â€“â€“ male or female â€“â€“ the fore-bearer of local swimming legendry for many years was Keyter.
Keyter, who held a vice-like grip on South African competitions and won 15 senior Rhodesian championship titles in his career from 1965-70, was in the Rhodesian team preparing for the greatest test of all the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City. But his elation was short-lived and turned to bitter disappointment just three weeks before the Games, when news was received that the Mexican government would not grant visas to the politically outcast Rhodesians.
At the time of the Olympics, Keyter already had seven South African butterfly titles under his belt. The Olympics disappointment, coupled with diminishing competition in South Africa, nearly forced Keyter into premature retirement. But his interest was renewed by the return of South African butterfly swimmer, Vernon Slovin, after a four-year stint in the US where he gained an international ranking and was at one time third in the world.
“This was a new challenge for me,” Keyter is said to have told local journalists. “It was a new incentive and I found myself fighting again.”
And so the scene was set for the 1969 South African championships in Cape Town where the Keyter-Slovin confrontation was billed as the biggest event of the week on the South African sporting calendar. Slovin, of Western Province, was determined to reclaim the butterfly titles he had relinquished while in America.
Wrote Zimbabwean sports journalist Glen Byrom in his book, Rhodesian Sports Profiles: “In the most magnificent race of his career, the 19-year-old Keyter rose to the occasion, timing his effort superbly and turning for the final lap of the 220 yards “fly”, half a body-lengthy behind Slovin. With a powerful finishing burst he lunged for the wall to touch in the South African record time of 2 min. 12,1 sec, 0.3 sec, faster than Slovin. His confidence high, the blond 6 ft. 4 in, 195 lb Rhodesian beat the Slovin challenge again the next night, smashing his own South African 110 yards “fly” record by 0,5 sec. returning a time of 59,2 sec. Slovin stopped the watches at one minute dead.”
Byrom added: “The rivalry continued a short time later in the South African Games at Bloemfontein, but Keyter stepped onto the starting blocks, not only with Slovin but also with a Welsh wizard named Martyn Woodroffe, a Silver Medal winner in the 200 metres “fly” at the 1968 Olympic Games.
“The trio fought a thrilling battle for the 100 metres butterfly Gold Medal and it needed elaborate timing equipment to separate them, Keyter getting verdict in 59,6 sec, with only four hundredths of a second between them all. It was confirmation, indeed, that Keyter was a world class, even though the 200 metres “fly” the previous night, he had to be content with the Bronze Medal, with a time of 2 min. 12,9 sec, behind Woodroffe (2 min 11,9 sec.) and Slovin (2 min 12,3 sec.).” Keyterâ€™s achievement that year was enough to make him a popular choice as the countryâ€™s Sportsman of the Year and he was awarded the magnificent John Hopley Memorial Trophy at a glittering ceremony in Salisbury.
Being recognised as the countryâ€™s finest sportsman was no mean feat at all for a swimmer, furthermore taking into account that it took 35 years for the sport to produce another national sportsperson of the year; a gem from Harare named Kirsty Leigh Coventry.
Moreover, in an era of premium Rhodesian sportsmen, Keyter had beaten a very strong field. That year the marvellous George Shaya had won the first of his five Soccer Star of the Year awards, national rugby luminary Ian Robertson had burst onto the Currie Cup scene with a thud, renowned cricketer Jackie Du Preez was at the peak of his game, and ace 100 metres sprinter Artwell Mandaza had come just 0,1 seconds outside the world record held by American Jim Hines. He clocked 10 seconds at Stellenbosch University in a run which was however classified as “wind assisted.”
During Keyterâ€™s era, Rhodesian swimming was at a crest and the national team won the South African inter-provincial Ellis Brown trophy for seven successive years, from 1960-66.
Keyter was offered tempting American scholarships at various times, but declined them.
By the end of 1970, having missed the Olympics and various Commonwealth Games Keyter announced his retirement, having won every honour open to him and realising there was no prospect of the countryâ€™s isolation ending.
He signed off saying: “My major regret is that I never had the chance to swim at the Olympic Games.”
It was not a major regret for him only, but for the whole local swimming fraternity, which finally realised its Olympic dream and produced a champion, at long last.
By Enock Muchinjo