Sunday, August 03, 2008

Zim's Olympic hopefuls

from Sports Illustrated

Ngoni Makusha's story is not one of political violence, sham elections and seven figure inflation rates. His is one of a freshman who jumped farther than any one else at the NCAA outdoor track and field championships this year. Neither is the story of swimmer Kirsty Coventry, who earlier this year swam the 200-meter backstroke faster than anyone ever has.

But Makusha and Coventry are both Olympians from Zimbabwe...

"I would hate for Ngoni to win the gold medal and have everyone ask him about how bad the political situation can be," says Ken Harnden, a former Zimbabwean Olympian and one of Makusha's coaches at Florida State. "But you can't escape the headlines."....

Only a country since 1980, Zimbabwe has won just four Olympic medals.....

Makusha and Coventry come from vastly different worlds within Zimbabwe's highly stratified society. Coventry's family employed servants, a common practice among Zimbabwe's elite, and had a pool in their backyard that got Kirsty hooked on the sport after a dislocated knee forced her out of field hockey, tennis and track at age 14. Makusha came from a rural village where running water is a luxury. Kids walk miles to school each day and often live on one square meal a day.

"Just the fact that he graduated from high school should be considered more impressive than his jumping 27 feet," says Harnden, who claims conditions have barely improved in the 20 years since he left Zimbabwe to run track at North Carolina. "When you're just trying to survive everyday, how long could you keep telling yourself , 'I'm going to be the best long jumper in the world'?"

But the travails of being an athlete in Zimbabwe transcend social boundaries. When then-Auburn swimming coach Kim Brackin went to Harare for a winter recruiting trip in 2000, Coventry could only swim a 100 IM for the coach before hopping out of the water blue in the face. None of Zimbabwe's pools are heated, and the country has no indoor pools. Coventry often had to take months off in the winter, while top swimmers trained year round.

"We never had lane lines [in Zimbabwe], it was just find a spot and go," says Coventry, who was recruited by numerous schools in the SEC, where many of Southern Africa's top swimmers end up. "Now it's like, 'How could I train without lane lines?'"

The country also has just one rubber track, with athletes like Makusha training on dirt and grass instead. Makusha had less than a year of actual coaching when he arrived in Tallahassee. ...

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