HAVING made history in Sochi in 2014 by sending the country’s first-ever athlete to the Winter Olympics, snowless Zimbabwe was not be represented this time around in South Korea, but all is not lost despite low funding and modest public interest.
Luke Steyn, who raced for Zimbabwe in the slalom and giant slalom disciplines at the Sochi Games, has since retired, but has wonderful memories of his experience on the Russian Black Sea coast four years ago.
“It is hard to describe,” 24-year-old Steyn, who is currently studying at a university in the United Kingdom, told independentsport.
“Years of hard work came to fruition on the world stage, in front of millions of people. And then having the privilege of doing your fellow countrymen proud. Because of the lack of winter sports history in Zimbabwe, going into Sochi I didn’t think that I was going to get much of a following. But the support I received from everyone back in Zimbabwe made it feel I had the whole country behind me, which magnified an intense feeling of pride. There’s a lot to be said for the love, support and respect that Zimbabweans have for each other.”
As for his performance in Sochi, Steyn was fairly satisfied with his effort, although that was not enough to encourage him to stay in the sport fulltime.
“As with all sportsmen, I felt there was room for improvement. From a starting bib of 90, I was placed 57th in the giant slalom of 117 athletes, which is definitely a strong performance. In the slalom, I was unfortunate to have straddles coming onto the flat, which means I was disqualified. The warm conditions made racing tough, so overall, I am happy with my performance.”
Harare-born Steyn started racing at the age of nine, having leant winter sports on family vacations in Europe. He was only two when his father accepted a job offer in Switzerland, which meant Zimbabwe’s pioneering Winter Olympian had a strong foundation unlike other aspiring winter athletes in his homeland who have never seen a smidgen of snow in their life.
But having grown up around snow and racing, Steyn decided to retire a few months after the Sochi Games, although it has been hard to walk away completely.
“I have done some fun races here and there, but nothing serious. It was a tough decision to make because it has been such a big part of my life since I can remember, but there are other things that I want to pursue and achieve and felt they needed my undivided attention,” Steyn said.
“It is tough to predict where winter sports in Zimbabwe is heading. Usually sports gain momentum at the grassroots, but unfortunately skiing and most winter sports cannot be practised in Zimbabwe. I think in the near future it will rely on individuals like myself who live in a country where winter sports are far more accessible. That being said, a lot of successful bobsled athletes were former sprinters who fell short of qualifying for the Summer Games. Zimbabweans should be encouraged to target winter sports where the fundamentals are easily learnt, but also require you to be a good overall athlete, of which there are many in Zimbabwe.”
Without representation in Pyeongchang, Steyn fears for the future of the sport in his country of birth.
“Of course, it’s not a step in the right direction, but these things take time. Rome wasn’t built in one day. I think the most important thing is getting Zimbabweans interested in winter sports, and encouraging them to watch it. I think that is the setback for winter sports in general, that they are not perceived as spectator sports. That is a load of rubbish. Try watching the Kitzbuhel downhill or the Schladming night slalom and not get excited.”
But while the head of Zimbabwe’s winter sports body shares Steyn’s concern over numbers, he is optimistic for the future.
Kevin Atkinson, president of the Zimbabwe Snow Sports Association, insisted failure to send an athlete to the 2018 Games will not have serious ramifications for the sport. “The following here is very small but I do not think we have taken a step backwards as the infrastructure is in place for others to follow,” said Atkinson, headmaster of a prestigious private boys’ school in Harare.
“This year we have two athletes who have shown interest and promise, but have not accumulated the points required to meet the Olympic qualifying times.
“We are not going backwards, but we must meet the required international criteria.”
The infrastructure Atkinson refers to includes an artificial indoor ice-skating facility at Westgate, Harare’s biggest shopping mall. The private company that bought it from Italy in 2016 charges for lessons, and scores of fun-seekers come through daily to enjoy this new phenomenon.
“Bringing ice skating to Harare was in response to a gap we saw in entertainment catering for the whole family in a family-oriented environment,” said Barbara Hapazari, a manager at the 263 Chilled Ice-Skating Rink, as it is called.
“Other countries in Africa also have ice rinks and we realised such a novel idea would be great for the Zimbabwean market.”
The leisure aspect, and making a profit, is the thrust at the moment for the people at Westgate. But Atkinson also sees it as a platform to popularise winter sports in Zimbabwe and perhaps inspire future Olympians.
“The company has made application to register with the Zimbabwe Snow Sports Association and this may be where the acorns are sown,” he said.
Atkinson’s association has not been in existence for long. It was only formed in response to Steyn’s emergence as a world-class skier.
When Steyn decided he could qualify for the Sochi Games under the Zimbabwean flag, a need arose for a national association affiliated by the country’s Olympics federation — for support and facilitation. But the biggest challenge, like most sporting disciplines in Zimbabwe, remains that of money.
“It is largely self-funded,” said Atkinson. “ZOC (Zimbabwe Olympic Committee) can give a small grant to an accepted athlete and Fisa, the world body, does have provision for limited funding, but this has not been applied for. It is an expensive sport. The travel, kit, support staff and time off work or study does mean that not everyone is in a position to compete at the highest level.”