AROUND 10,500 athletes from 204 nations are participating in the London 2012 Olympics over the coming weeks and none are probably more important to their country than Zimbabwe’s Kirsty Coventry of Zimbabwe.
The swimmer competed in all three Olympics of the previous decade, winning a gold, a silver and a bronze in Athens and three silvers and a gold in Beijing four years later.
Now at 28 she enters her fourth Olympics in London as Zimbabwe’s second-ever Olympic medallist since the country was recognised as an independent state in 1980, three years before Kirsty’s birth.
In one of the world’s most divided nations, Kirsty’s success and demeanour have shone like a beacon of pride for all Zimbabweans, regardless of colour, social-standing or political affiliation. President Robert Mugabe has christened her the nation’s “Golden Girl” post her 2008 success. She’s also white. It’s complicated.
Sport can be dangerous in Zimbabwe whatever your background. Henry Olonga and Andy Flower were black and white respectively, but were effectively exiled in the wake of their protest against Mugabe’s rule in 2003. White cricket captain Heath Streak’s father’s farm was seized for redistribution as part of the forceful repossession of land by Mugabe’s government.
Mugabe will associate himself with successful sports people, while punishing any sports star that voices opposition to his reign.
Outside of sport, things have quietened down since the near-civil war between Mugabe’s Zanu PF and current Prime Minister Morgan Tsvangirai’s MDC in 2008. The country has experienced over 90 per cent unemployment in the past few years and hyperinflation has seen the introduction of such extreme measures as the Zimbabwean trillion dollar bill.
In short, things have been very difficult but in Coventry they have possibly the only unifying force in the country.
On a pedestal
When I speak to Kirsty she is in peppy form, bright and engaging, I immediately ask her a downer question – it must be a lot of pressure being seen in that way and being put on a pedestal?
“Yeah I think being somewhat removed from it on a daily basis,” she answers before pausing to consider her next word as she is careful about this sensitive subject, “I’m maybe put on a pedestal and lot of people look up to me, but that’s what’s driving me and encouraging me.
“So I’ve been very lucky with the community in Zimbabwe being behind me and backing me up, it’s such an honour...such a great honour,” she says.
“I’m very proud to be Zimbabwean and to represent Zimbabwe. I’ve always tried not to read too much or involve too much politics in my sport...it’s not ignorance, I mean I know exactly what’s going on...” she says saliently, before offering a nearby and immediate vision for what sport can do in Zimbabwe.
“You know if you look at other countries like South Africa and what a rugby game can do to unify a country and that’s how I kind of want to look at and approach my sport in swimming,” referring to the 1995 World Cup win for Zimbabwe’s neighbours that healed some rifts leftover by apartheid a few years previously.
It’s a positive, yet non-confrontational approach that Kirsty evidentially wants to adopt, you mention her words after the 2008 World Short Course Championship, the closest she came to making a political statement in the past: “I know that's part of why I'm doing what I do. I hope it makes a difference and gives people back home hope that things will change for the better. People have to remain positive and believe in those dreams. It's really important."
Her tone turns from peppy to serious for a moment when you repeat these words to her, it’s clear that this is an important point. “It is really important. You have to believe in yourself and each other."
It was at the Olympics in 2004 that Kirsty first broke onto the scene, winning three medals (a bronze in the 200m Individual Medley, a silver in the 100metres backstroke and a gold in the 200metres backstroke. Beijing brought more medals but it sounds like she is taking London 2012 in her stride.
“I’m going to be swimming three events, the 100metre backstroke, the 200m backstroke and the 200m Individual medley, I decided to drop the 400m after dislocating my knee and getting pneumonia a couple of months ago.
“I’m looking to go to London to have fun and enjoy it and I’m confident with my training and where I am and my experience. This being my fourth Olympics...I’d love to get on the podium, I know it’s going to be a lot harder than in previous years, but I’m up for that challenge.”
Regardless of the outcome at these Olympics she’s taking some time off to relax before embarking on another chapter of her life. After a safari holiday at home, politics looms for Kirsty. Having worked with Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s charitable foundation Lapdesk, Kirsty hopes to become one of four new athlete representatives on International Olympics Committee.
“Yeah, you know I’d love to be involved with the IOC in the future in any way I can. I’d love to do that and regardless of when I retire I would love to stay involved in my sport and sports in general especially having seen the impact that I’ve been able to make at home and I’d love to carry that on.
“I’d love to keep that part of my life and bridge that gap between business and sports and seeing it grow because as I said sport is wonderful way to bring people together. “
Whether in the pool or in Parliament, Zimbabwe needs her. Mugabe may only be right about one thing the past few years. She is the country’s Golden Girl.