THE ZIMBABWE Olympic Committee president Admire Masenda has raised concern over the small numbers of athletes that are qualifying to represent the country at the Olympic Games over the years hence depriving the nation of more medals at the world's biggest sporting showcase.
Eight athletes have made it to the London Games this year but they make a smaller team compared to the last Olympic Games in Beijing, China, in 2008, when Zimbabwe sent a contingent of 13 competitors who competed in swimming, athletics, tennis, cycling, triathlon and rowing.
These athletes were swimmers Kirsty Coventry and Heather Brand, long jumper Ngoni Makusha, sprinters Brian Dzingai, Lewis Banda and Talkmore Nyongani, middle-distance runner Cutbert Nyasango, marathon runners Tabitha Tsatsa and Mike Fokorani, cyclist Antipas Kwari, rower Elena Hill, tennis player Cara Black and triathlete Chris Felgate.
Swimming sensation Coventry stole the show from the rest of her Zimbabwean teammates as she emerged as the only member of that team to win medals at the Beijing Games.
Coventry managed to improve on her three-medal performance from the Athens Games in 2004, repeating her gold medal feat in the 200-metre backstroke and her silver in the 100-metre backstroke and adding silver medals in the 200 and 400-metre individual medleys.
The swimming queen also set a world record in her 100-metre backstroke semi-final which was not broken in the final and won another 200-metre backstroke title in another world record.
At the Beijing Games in 2008, a number of Zimbabwean athletes also competed in athletics and their best finish was a pair of fourth places -- one coming from United States based Dzingai in the men's 200-metres and the other came from Makusha in the men's long jump.
During the 2004 Athens Olympics, Zimbabwe was represented by 12 athletes and the team appears to be shrinking, with this year being the worst.
"We are not growing in terms of the number of athletes from games to games and it's a situation that we really want to focus on. We need to grow by getting more athletes to the games and it's not ZOC alone but associations and the nation working together.
"We talk of economic issues but we need to come up with more national programmes where everything is put in place to prepare future athletes. I have mentioned this to (the Minister of Education, Sport, Arts and Culture) David Coltart.
"The problem is the link from schools to tertiary level. If you look overseas, universities are producing quality athletes thus there is need for national programmes. I know the ministry launched one a few months ago after the President had complained about poor performance by our All-Africa Games team last year.
"I have talked to my board about the issue. It's a mammoth task but if it brings everybody and their mindset to the same level then we can start from there," said Masenda.
From the eight athletes that have qualified this year, another medal hopeful Ngoni Makusha is set to watch from the sidelines after he picked up an injury while preparing for the London Games.
Makusha raptured his Achilles tendon during a training session at his base in Florida, United States, last month and underwent surgery at Tallahasse.
He is currently in rehabilitation.
Masenda feels Makusha's absence at the 2012 London Games will be a huge blow to the team as the former Mandedza High School pupil showed a lot of promise in the previous Games in Beijing where he missed a medal by a mere centimetre.
"We have set ourselves a strategic goal of getting at least eight athletes to the London Olympic Games and we got those athletes. It's unfortunate Ngoni Makusha got injured whilst at training.
"We are disappointed with Makusha's injury because this was going to be an opportunity for him to shine and make strides especially in the long jump because if you noticed he missed a medal in Beijing by one centimetre.
"It was also going to help him grow as an athlete and prove whether he is a real talent because he will be competing against the best athletes in the world and it would have helped him value himself in terms of competence.
"I really think Makusha was getting there," added Masenda.
Other athletes that have qualified for the London 2012 Games are swimmer Coventry, marathon runners Sharon Tavengwa, Cutbert Nyasango and Wirimai Juwawo, triathlete Chris Felgate and two rowers Micheen Thornycroft and Jamie Fraser-McKenzie but more are expected to make the team for the London Games as they still have up to the beginning of July to qualify.
The ZOC boss said they are aware that there is an expectation from the nation for Team Zimbabwe to win more medals at the London Games since a precedent was set at the last two Olympics in Athens, Greece, in 2004 and Beijing, China, in 2008 but have also reckoned the importance of coming up with incentives for these athletes to do well in London.
Masenda also believes that Coventry will remain Zimbabwe's medal prospect number one and expect other athletes to compete and surpass their personal best times or finish in respectable positions.
"We are hopeful that Kirsty Coventry will do well. We all know that she has dropped one event and she will now participate in three rather than four events.
"She remains our number one medal prospect for our team. With the other athletes, I think the biggest issue is to achieve getting into the final places and beat their times . . . medal prospects are not very high but maybe finishing in top 20 or 50 will be good.
"There is also need for coming up with incentives to motivate these athletes because knowing that if they win they get so much, chances of them doing well are high," said Masenda.
Masenda also highlighted that despite the low profile in this year's build-up to next month's London Olympic Games, ZOC have done enough within their resources to make sure that Team Zimbabwe is well prepared but pointed financial challenges as their major setback.
"In terms of competition prior to the Games there are some athletes who have gone to Egypt and Germany to get a feel of what it's like competing at the highest level. The buzz is not as high but preparations are good.
"One of our challenges has been financial funding; people are really feeling the pinch. The hype is a bit low but in terms of preparations, we have done everything within our resources to make sure these athletes are adequately prepared."
Just like in the previous Olympics, Team Zimbabwe will not go into camp in a move aimed at easing the pressure on the athletes.
"We are not going to have team camp because it takes the athletes out of their rhythm. For example, Coventry is saying 'I don't want to be in England until few days before the games because it distracts me'", concluded Masenda.