The Olympics are not supposed to be political; or rather, politics should be a minor consideration, given the spirit of openness and generosity that ideally will prevail through the expression of the Olympic ideal. Sport, it is believed, can unite nations that otherwise are suspicious of each other, if not at each other’s throats. After all, we even saw an act of reconciliation between Georgia and Russia after the 25m pistol shooting event in Beijing: the bronze winning athlete from Georgia, embraced her silver medal winning Russian counterpart during the awards ceremony. Both stood together and called for peace.
Now that I’ve gotten all those lofty platitudes out of the way, I can state the truth: the Olympics are deeply riven with politics. China did not spend $40 billion on the Beijing Olympics because it thought it would make a profit. Nor do hard up nations like North Korea divert huge resources into sport because they think it’s fun. Competition between nations is seen by a number of regimes as a means by which to express their superiority. We saw this particularly during the era of Communism, and previous to that, in the ostentatious displays of Nazi prowess during the 1936 Olympic Games. Sport is in fact a weapon, whether it is trying to show that men of iron are being forged in the blast furnace of a new socio-economic system, or in mass displays of exquisite “harmony” and unity.
In my opinion, however, the best sort of Olympic political statements are those which are entirely unintentional. This leads us gracefully to the case of Ms. Kirsty Coventry, a swimmer from Zimbabwe.
As has been well reported, Zimbabwe is a basket case, plagued with hyperinflation, racial tension and violence. Mugabe has brutalised his own people in a most stark fashion for years; most recently, he threatened and murdered his way to re-election as President. Fortunately he has been so naked in his power grab that the rest of Africa has been compelled to put pressure on him to mend his ways. Thanks to this diplomatic push, there are negotiations presently going on between the regime and the opposition Movement for Democratic Change, which may yet yield a power-sharing arrangement. In the meantime, it is still fair to describe Zimbabwe as a “troubled” country, more down and out than up and coming.
Enter Ms. Coventry. She first made her mark in the 2004 Olympic Games, winning a gold, a silver and a bronze in the pool: she is a backstroke specialist, although she appears ready to try almost any event. As she is white, she represents a different face to Zimbabwe, and is the most visible example of a minority that Mugabe has made much hay out of despising. Her success has put the old dictator into a mightily uncomfortable position: in 2004, he had to grudgingly admit that she is their “golden girl”. The reactions of average Zimbabweans were even more effusive; as an indication of their continuing spirit of defiance against the regime, many went so far as to suggest, via the New Zimbabwe publication, that she should be given a farm. In a country riven with violent disagreement, she is, whether she likes it or not, a focus for unity; the fact that she has steadfastly refused to abandon her citizenship for probably far more lucrative arrangements in another nation (she attended University in the United States), has only enhanced her reputation.
Ms. Coventry herself has maintained an air of supreme modesty about her achievements. When she arrived to a triumphal welcome in Harare in 2004, she merely said: “This is awesome! I want to thank you all so much for your support…my race strategies I need to improve on, so I can go faster; I have the medals, but I don’t have the world records yet.”
Furthermore, she is generous with advice to the next generation of swimmers, as this video demonstrates:
So how is she progressing in Beijing? Rather well: she has so far won two silver medals. The first was in the 400m individual medley, an event she apparently does not consider her speciality. She obtained the second silver in the 100m backstroke; she recorded a new world record in this event during the heats. Shortly, she will be defending her Olympic title in the 200m backstroke competition. She is already the greatest Olympian to come out of Zimbabwe; I personally hope that a bit more gold will be added to her lustre.
Furthermore, with a bit of luck, a negotiated settlement between the government and opposition will be completed by the time she goes home. As I’m sure she would agree, it’s one thing for her achievements to be one item among many for Zimbabweans to celebrate, it’s quite another if they are the only blessing her countrymen have to cherish. The “princess of sport” (as her countrymen call her) should have the luxury of not being a political figure; it is a distinction she well deserves.