Victor Olonga on ‘seeking peace’ and rugby’s return

“THERE are no problems, only solutions,” Victor Olonga, the former Zimbabwe captain, quotes John Lennon when queried about the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on rugby in his country and the rest of Africa.

ENOCK MUCHINJO

“Every situation we are faced with is an opportunity to find a corrective measure,” Olonga adds in a chat with IndependentSport this week. “It depends how you look at it.”

Olonga has a firm conviction that Zimbabwean and continental rugby should follow in the footsteps of the world’s major playing nations, which are set to return to action before the end of the year despite the threat of the unprecedented global pandemic.

The outspoken ex-Zimbabwe star player has also weighed into the debate over the gross imbalance in the world game, remarking that Covid-19 could turn out to be a wonderful opportunity for the elite nations and the marginalised world to unite as they come together to seek solutions.

“This creates a situation whereby two sides can actually start to understand each other,” Olonga says. “Both Zimbabwe rugby, or African rugby, and world rugby on the other hand, can gather with the medical and scientific profession as a solution is sought. You can argue that this pandemic is a product of the social, economic, environmental, and health standards that modern society has.”

Due to the physicality of the sport, rugby had seemed the least likely to make a comeback anytime soon, although the chief medical officer of World Rugby, Eanna Falvey, insisted that the game does not necessarily pose a risk greater than any other sporting code because of its heavy contact nature.And the good news for rugby fans around the world is that the best competitions on the planet are on their way back.

The southern hemisphere’s Super Rugby contest is due to begin in New Zealand on June 13 with Australia following suit in July.In England, that country’s top clubs have been given the go-ahead to resume training under certain conditions, although no date has been set for the resumption of the Premiership.
The Guinness Pro14 is provisionally scheduled to return on August 22.

Closer to home in South Africa, all professional sports, including rugby, were last week allowed to resume training in a controlled manner.For Olonga, Zimbabwe and other rugby-playing countries in Africa should also set plans in motion to get their calendar moving.

“I feel they should play this year, both locally and internationally,” Olonga says. “We have to respect ourselves and prove that we have value. I say that as a reference to the time when the (Zimbabwe) national football team played a qualifier in the Congo during an Ebola outbreak.”
The talismanic former Zimbabwe fullback, however, stresses that the relevant authorities will have to strictly enforce safety procedures because entirely relying on the teams and the public to self-regulate could prove costly.

“Whatever measures are put in place, they will be flouted as with everything else,” Olonga comments. “People hardly listen to the right people as can be seen with the information and reactions to Covid-19. Science will tell us how and what we need to do and the people in charge will do what they can do.”
Olonga, oddly, does not have a personal interest in rugby’s comeback. The 46-year-old insists that his well-known stance vowing never to have anything to do with rugby again — which stems from a bad career experience he personally blames himself for — has not changed.

“I don’t wish to (return),” Olonga declares. “Rugby has the best of intentions. Unfortunately for me, the way I read and interpreted it made me behave in a way that almost made me lose myself.”

But the man who accumulated 20 or so caps for Zimbabwe is not known to be self-centred. A tendency to shoot from the hip in solidarity with his troops often put him at loggerheads with those in positions of influence — a forceful leader whose combative attitude towards institutional authority cost him both the captaincy and his place in the Zimbabwe team in the early 2000s.

So despite putting rugby behind him, Olonga has a word of advice for the game in his country, which is making noticeable strides to revive the sport’s fortunes following decades of underachieving.

“Rugby was especially in the amateur days a community-vested sport, for the community and by the community,” Olonga says.“The culture looked after the sport, and the sport provided the culture. I think such ideas need to be revisited to try and help resuscitate it.”

The ex-Sables maestro is older brother of former cricketer Henry Olonga, the self-exiled Zimbabwe fast bowler who fled the country in fear during the 2003 Cricket World Cup after receiving death threats in the aftermath of a black armband protest alongside teammate Andy Flower, “to mourn the death of democracy in the country”.

Henry — who is also a gifted singer — has never set foot in Zimbabwe ever since, although he has hinted in recent interviews that he felt it was now probably safe for him to visit home. After living in exile in Britain for 12 years since 2003, Henry moved to Australia in 2015, where he now lives with his wife Tara and two daughters.

The brothers are sons of a Kenyan surgeon father and a Zimbabwean mother. They are well known for their conflicting personalities and perspectives, and Victor has previously publicly disagreed with his young brother’s political viewpoint on the goings-on in Zimbabwe.

When Henry arrived in the United Kingdom in 2003, Victor was finishing his last professional contract in that country with Penzance & Newlyn FRC, a club he had spent four seasons with and helped gain promotion into the National League One of the English rugby union set-up.

A year later, in 2004, Victor permanently moved back home to Zimbabwe to start a business venture in Bulawayo, the family’s hometown.
The brothers last met in the flesh 17 years ago when a very relieved Henry was offered refuge by his older sibling after landing in England, having left Zimbabwe terrified and shaken.

“When I last saw my brother, neither of us were parents, so mostly we discuss family and how to do right by the responsibilities that come with it,” Victor says. “Henry is a strong man, much stronger than me. He will always find a way to get the best out of the abilities he has. I think his achievements have been remarkable if one looks at how he left here.”

The older Olonga says he has never seriously considered leaving Zimbabwe again, 16 years after moving back, although he does have his own views on the situation in his crisis-ridden homeland.

“Zimbabwe is not troubled as people say,” Olonga says. “Its citizens may be struggling, but what people have to do is forgive themselves for the behaviour that made them corrupt. For with honesty comes the truth and that comes the way. I know it sounds ridiculous, but when I thought about it, it sounded right.”
Olonga is also a top fitness and martial arts defence trainer in Bulawayo, and we asked him what else he does to earn a decent livelihood for himself and his young family.

“At the moment I am waiting for the indefinite lockdown to end as well as world peace,” he replies peculiarly. “You can pick the one you believe to be true.”