7 August 2012

Zimbabwe: Devise a Sustainable Plan for Our Future Olympians


After the dizzy heights we scaled in Athens and Beijing, where Kirsty Co-ventry won a combined seven medals, including two gold, Zimbabwe has been getting a reality check at the London 2012 Olympics.

Kirsty left without a medal and, after the heroics of the last decade and the emergence of younger and faster swimmers, it's easy to understand her decision to retire.

Zimbabwe's Golden Girl could only finish sixth, in the final of her favourite 200m backstroke, an event she had dominated in winning gold medals in Athens in 2004 and Beijing in 2008.

Even the world record she had set in the event was obliterated by American teenage swimming sensation, Missy Franklin, who dominated the final.

A lot was expected from Kirsty by Zimbabweans but, at 28, she is not getting any younger and as younger swimmers emerge, it was always going to be difficult for her to retain her dominance.

Kirsty has run her leg for us and this country should be proud that it produced such a phenomenal athlete who flew our flag very high at a grand stage like the Olympic Games.

The real challenge, once Kirsty scaled those heights, was for us to try and maintain those standards and it needed more athletes to arrive on the big stage, for that to be possible, rather than for us to continue to rely solely on our swimming queen.

In Beijing, long jumper, Ngonidzashe Makusha, provided that ray of hope with a fine performance in which he came fourth, denied a medal only by a mere centimetre in the final.

Regrettably, Makusha was injured in the countdown to the London Olympics and, looking at the distance that was covered by the medal-winning athletes in the long jump, one can see that this was one big missed opportunity for us.

It's not an easy assignment to produce an athlete who can win a medal at the Olympics and both Makusha and Kirsty have been helped, to a large extent, by the training facilities, expertise and regime that they have received from their lengthy stint in the United States.

But if an athlete like Makusha can emerge from Mandedza, in the Seke communal lands and get within a centimetre of winning an Olympic medal, how many other raw talents, who are probably better than him, lie wasting away in such areas?

Are we doing enough, as a country, to tap such talent and expose it, the way we did it with Makusha, or we just wait for a lucky break as and when it comes without putting a lot of our efforts into the project?

After Beijing, and all the promise that we showed, what master plan did we put in place, through the Zimbabwe Olympic Committee, to ensure that we would be in a position to have more athletes like Makusha in London?

While we had 13 athletes in Beijing, we could only send seven to London because most of those who wanted to represent us there terribly failed to make the qualifying standards.

That, on its own, told a story, even before the first Zimbabwean athlete had plunged into action in London, of how we had lost the plot in the four years between Beijing and London.

South Africa won just one medal, in the long jump in Beijing and rather than sink with their disappointment, they used it to recharge their batteries and plan better for London.

Swimming has always been the medal-producing factory of the South African teams at the Olympics and, until the London Olympics, the swimmers from the Rainbow Nation had won eight of the 19 medals the country had reaped since its return to the Games.

But after winning nothing in Beijing's pools, Swimming South Africa devised a three-year programme, funded by the country's Olympic body and Lotto and invested heavily in preparing their swimmers for London.

We have all seen the benefits that have been reaped from such an investment with Cameron Van der Burgh winning gold and smashing the world record and Chad le Clos beating Michael Phelps, widely considered to be the greatest Olympian of all-time, for gold.

In contrast, we all stashed our eggs in Kirsty's basket, hoping that she will produce one more miracle, even when it was clear that age would be a huge barrier in her quest to dominate the field in London. Why, for goodness sake, we carried a big delegation of officials, which was more than twice the number of athletes to London, not only defies logic, but puts into context how misplaced our priorities have become. Why, for goodness sake, did we ask Sharon Tavengwa to come and run in the marathon when it was clear, in the build-up to the Games, that she was injured and wouldn't last the distance?

The Zimbabwe Olympic Committee shouldn't only come alive, in the year or in the months leading to the Olympic Games, but it should be visible, through the projects it is carrying out to try and boost our chances of a medal haul, in all the four years between the Olympics.

There is also a need to look at the national associations, especially the National Athletic Association of Zimbabwe, and see where such organisations can be revived because, in its current state under the leadership of Joseph Mungwari, the organisation has become as good as dead.

Why, for instance, we can't produce one good amateur boxer to fight at the Olympics leaves more questions than answers while disciplines like shooting, which used to make a mark, have gone off the radar.

Something has to be done and London should be the beginning, and not the end, of our revival as a nation that can win medals at the Olympics.

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