By Phillip Whitten
Without question, Kirsty Coventry is one of the greatest female swimmers competing today. She won three individual medals – one of each color — at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. In 2005 she did even better, taking two gold and two silver medals home from the World Championships in Montreal.
And therein lies the problem. “Home,” for Kirsty, is the southern African nation of Zimbabwe, until recently a member of the British Commonwealth.
For the last quarter century, Zimbabwe has been ruled by Robert Mugabe and his thugocracy. Originally a popular leader, Mugabe has devolved into a brutal, racist dictator, whose ruinous policies have impoverished his country.
As a protest against Mugabe, Zimbabwe was banned from the Commonwealth Games, which will take place in Melbourne, Australia, next February.
That means Kirsty Coventry can’t compete.
But Coventry has been astutely apolitical. She has never made a public statement either for or against Mugabe. What’s more, as an athlete she is entirely powerless to change her country’s political system or leadership, just as, in 1980, the Soviet athletes were unable to reverse their country’s invasion of Afghanistan.
So, once again, we are left with the bizarre situation in which an innocent person is being punished for the transgressions of another.
We’ve been down this road before.
Last week, we explored a bit of the history of the volatile mixture of politics and sport, particularly the major Olympic boycotts of 1976, 1980 and 1984.
Each of those misbegotten affairs was sponsored by a different nation or group of nations – several African countries in l976, the USA in 1980 and the USSR in 1984. Each had a different rationale – the Africans were protesting a tour of South Africa by the New Zealand rugby team; the US was calling for a Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan; and the USSR, in a foolish, retaliatory move, cited concerns about the safety of its athletes in “the anti-Communist atmosphere” of the USA.
The first two of these boycotts failed to achieve their stated aims – the Kiwi rugby team went ahead with its tour of South Africa, and the US-led boycott had no impact on Soviet policy in Afghanistan; and, of course, Soviet athletes were never in any danger in L.A. The only people hurt by these boycotts were the African, American and Soviet athletes who had trained for years, inspired by their Olympic dream.
Ironically, the one time when a boycott was justified – when Adolph Hitler used the 1936 Games in Berlin to showcase the supposed superiority of the “Aryan race” — the US Olympic Committee, led by its pro-Nazi president, Avery Brundage, quashed moves to boycott or move the Games.
Every now and then, the IOC bans a country from participating in the Games as a statement against some reprehensible aspect of its political regime — though this is done selectively and only to small countries. Thus, South Africa was banned from 1964 to 1992 for its policy of racial domination, known as apartheid.
(Strangely, the IOC never threatened to ban Uganda under Idi Amin, the Central African Empire under Jean-Bedel Bokassa, Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge or Iraq under Saddam Hussein, to name just a few. Likewise, the repugnant present-day regimes of Iran and the Sudan remain members in good standing of the Olympic “family”.)
The banning of South Africa kept some of the world’s greatest athletes from competing on the world stage. One of these was Jonty Skinner, who in 1976 swam the 100-meter freestyle in an astounding world record 49.44 seconds in a slow pool in Philadelphia, just two weeks after Jim Montgomery had won Olympic gold when he broke the 50-second barrier with his 49.99.
Skinner’s sin? He was South African.
In cruel irony, he was also firmly against apartheid. “I never was a fan of apartheid,” he told me, “but I certainly didn’t have the ability to change the system.”
Now Coventry, whose politics are unknown but who never has been associated with Mugabe or his ZANU party, is in a similar position.
But the situation need not be hopeless. There was a solution in 1976, and there is a solution today: Invite Coventry to compete under the umbrella of the Commonwealth Games, itself.
If she wins, instead of the Zimbabwean national anthem, another suitable song, stressing the international brotherhood of athletes, could be played; instead of the Zimbabwean flag being raised, the Commonwealth flag, or UN flag (or no flag!) could be substituted.
But, you may protest, this would open the door to a flood of Zimbabwean and other athletes demanding to compete. It would be a “dangerous precedent.”
Not at all!
All the Commonwealth Games organizers need do is establish a set of tough qualifying standards for all Zimbabwean swimmers, runners and other athletes who would like to participate in the Games as individuals and under the Commonwealth banner. These standards might be the same as the general qualifying times for athletes from any country eligible to participate. Or, they could be tougher: say, ranking in the top 16 or top 10 in the world the previous year.
The point is to allow all of the best athletes in the Commonwealth to participate – not just those fortunate enough to live in Britain, Canada, Australia or another democratic country.
The issue is fair play.
Is there anyone among the Commonwealth Games organizers with the courage to do what clearly is right?
Let Kirsty swim!