Coventry Story Raises Some Knotty Issues

By Phillip Whitten

PHOENIX, Ariz., February 11. HERE's a truism you can take to the bank: Never mix sports and politics. It's a combustible mixture

* Adolph Hitler turned the 1936 Olympic Games into a disgusting endorsement for his racist ravings and delusions of "Aryan supremacy":

* In 1980, President Jimmy Carter tried to pressure the USSR to leave Afghanistan by having the US boycott the Moscow Games. The result: a generation of US and other western athletes missed their opportunity for Olympic glory while Soviet and East German athletes dominated the Games. And, oh yeah, the Soviet Union remained in Afghanistan for another decade.

* In 1984, the Eastern bloc nations retaliated for 1980 and boycotted the L.A. Games, thereby depriving their own athletes of the fruits of their labor and ensuring US dominance of the '84 Games.

* Just last summer in Athens, an Iranian judo player refused to compete against an Israeli opponent, thereby forfeiting the match and breaking the Olympic Oath to which he swore at the Opening Ceremonies.

No, any time you inject politics into sports, it's a recipe for disaster.

That's why the Kirsty Coventry story was so inviting. Here was a young woman from the southern African country of Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia), who won not one, but three Olympic medals in Athens. Including one of the golden variety. To make it even better: she was the first Zimbabwean ever to win individual Olympic gold!.

Kirsty was celebrated – dare I say "lionized"? — upon her return to Harare after the Games, as thousands of Zimbabweans packed the airport until it seemed ready to burst, and tens of thousands lined the route to the capital, as Kirsty's motorcade made its triumphal drive to the city. They shouted her name, then perpetuated it as a generation of babies, named after their heroine, partook of her triumph

Later, she was feted by President Robert Mugabe, and given a lifetime diplomatic passport.

It was a major high for a country riven by a racial divide as wide as the Grand Canyon, a divide fostered and perpetuated by Mr. Mugabe, who seems determined to destroy his country's economic infrastructure by driving out Zimbabwe's white citizens.

That's why Kirsty's story was irresistible. You see, Kirsty – a native Zimbabwean who loves her country — is white; a member of a now decimated minority that Mugabe would dearly love to see departed.

But during Kirsty's triumphant visit home, race didn't matter. For a few brief shining moments – days, even weeks – sport overcame politics. For that short respite from conflict and strife, it wouldn't have mattered if Kirsty were purple, or polka-dotted. What mattered was that she was Zimbabwean.

It was a story that practically begged to be written.

That's why I asked Craig Lord, Swimming World Magazine's British correspondent, to do a story for the magazine of the triumph of sport over politics.

Craig is a superb journalist who scribbles for The Times of London, one of the world's great newspapers. He has been a courageous, outspoken fighter in the struggle against doping, an invaluable colleague and comrade-in-arms.

Following the guidelines I had given him, Craig wrote a terrific story. We published it as "An Unlikely Hero" in the February issue of Swimming World.

And that's when the problems began.

Kirsty was very upset for two reasons:

1. The story says that President Mugabe presented her with a lifetime diplomatic passport and $50,000 in "pocket money"; and

2. The story places her triumph within the context of Zimbabwe's current social and political struggle, pulling no punches about the type of regime Mr. Mugabe has run in recent years.

On the first count, Kirsty was upset because keeping the $50,000 would be in violation of NCAA rules and render her ineligible to compete for Auburn University, where she is a senior. In fact, being aware of the rule, Kirsty generously had donated the prize to the Zimbabwean Olympic Committee to be used to support the training of promising young Zimbabwean athletes.

On the second count, while Craig was at pains to point out that Kirsty loves her country, and absolutely has no intention of switching sports nationalities as have other white Zimbabweans, she feared some might interpret critical comments by Craig and some of the African journalists he quoted on the situation in Zimbabwe as reflecting her own views. This, she feared, might jeopardize members of her family, all of whom live in Zimbabwe.

For his part, except for acknowledging having taken some literary license with the $50,000 prize (not knowing about the NCAA rule), Craig felt he had done nothing for which to apologize. It was a classic case of freedom of the press versus compromising in the face of political reality.

Both sides of the controversy have considerable merit: Yes, Craig's article was accurate, but even though he made clear that Kirsty has no comment whatsoever to make on the political situation in Zimbabwe, her fears are based in reality. It would take only a handful of zealots, deliberately — or even genuinely — misinterpreting the article, to place Kirsty's family in grave jeopardy.

The following is Kirsty's response to the controversial article:

The article about me — "An Unlikely Hero" — by Craig Lord in the February issue of Swimming World in no way reflects the interview that I engaged in with Mr. Lord.

I was led to believe that the article would focus on my swimming life and would not draw the political atmosphere of Zimbabwe into it. However, after reading the article, it seems that Mr. Lord took his own liberties and agendas into consideration and wrote an unfounded account of his ideas of Zimbabwe and placed them on my back.

I am very flattered that Swimming World would use me as its feature article as I am a big fan of the magazine and what it has done and continues to do for the sport of swimming, but unfortunately, I feel that I was misrepresented in the article.

The following is the entire interview conducted by Mr. Lord, via e-mail, with my responses.

LORD: I'm writing a feature for Swimming World on all the stuff surrounding your homecoming and the amazing reception that you got back home. Naturally, I touch on the politics of it and I've picked up the very gracious quotes you gave to the world media at the time and since you got back to Auburn. I fully understand why you would not wish to comment on the political situation in Zimbabwe, so question 1 on the list below is there because professionally, I am bound to ask it. If you feel unable to answer, It will go no further than that. Beyond that first question it's pretty straightforward.

1. Just how hard has life been for your immediate and extended family back home in Zimbabwe and have they suffered any form of racial hatred, felt threatened in their daily lives and how hopeful are you of a happy outcome for all Zimbabweans, black and white, at some stage in the future?
A. I don't like mixing politics with sports. I don't think they should be mixed.

2. Can you describe what life was like growing up at home and how did you get into swimming?
A. It was awesome, I have a very close-knit family and we always had a Sunday lunch and spent the day together, all aunts, uncles, cousins. I loved going to Kariba, which is our biggest lake, on the houseboat, fishing and lying in the sun. The sunsets were incredible and my favorite time of day watching the animals coming down to the water, elephants, water buck, impala, zebra, giraffe. My grandparents, on my dad's side were involved in swimming . My parents, especially my dad and his brothers, were all very sporty, especially in swimming. My mom taught me how to swim when I was 18 months and I started at a club, the Highlands, when I was 6 years, then I moved to Otters for a couple of months. I have been at Pirates with Mr and Mrs. Mathieson since I was 12.

3. What were the conditions in which you swam back home. Was it a private pool, private club and were there black swimmers training alongside you?
A. I have been at Pirates for most of my swimming career. We swam at a high school pool and it was open to anybody who wanted to swim and all ages.

4. What was the name of your club and club coach back home in Zim?
A. Pirates, Mr and Mrs Mathieson.

5. I believe your family were just about all swimmers, including your granddad…Obviously none of them were quite as good as you, but how far did they get, to what level did they swim, and did they do any other sports (is it true you came from what the media like to call 'a sporty family'?
A. Yes I came from a very sporty family. They all played a lot of sport. My dad's brother — my uncle — swam for the country.

6. Your family runs a chemicals business in Hárare, according to reports..What is the business: is it agribusiness, pool chemicals (what is the nature of the business, and is it family owned?)
A. Yes, it is called Omnichem. It is all household chemicals, from laundry to cleaning.

7. Could you outline a typical day in the life of Kirsty Coventry, arts student at Auburn (on a day when you are training!). –.i.e., rise at 5.30am, in pool by 6.30pm, breakfast at 8.45pm etc, that sort of thing, until, bed by 10pm…
A. I wake up around 5.30 for practice at 6. Then it is off to class at 9 until about 1. Then its lunch, and then back to the pool at 3. I am a hotel and restaurant major and am minoring in business.

8. Could you list a typical training set you might do during a heavy winter training period…
A. 3 by 800 on 14mins with 4 50's loosen, best average.

9. How is life at Auburn? Do you like campus life, and when not swimming what kinds of things do you like to do and who do you hang out with?
A. I love Auburn. [Coming here] was the best decision I have made in my life so far. It is like having a huge family with fifty sisters and brothers. The coaches are great role models and all very family-oriented, so that helped a lot when I was homesick. Kim (Brackin) is not only a great coach but has been a great friend and a great mother figure. I hang out a lot with the team: we watch movies, go out, and just enjoy spending time with each other.

10. How often do you get back to Zimbabwe? Did you go back for the Christmas new year break? And if so, where do you train?
A. I usually try and go home every summer, and I got to spend Christmas with my family in England this year, which was awesome. I train with my club coach.

11. Montreal is the big one for next summer…I take it you are competing. Will the focus be medley and backstroke, and what kind of race schedule have you got between now and July?
A. Yeah, I'm planning on being there. I'm not too sure about the program yet, but pretty sure I will be swimming the backstrokes and IMs.

12. Do you have to qualify for Montreal or are you already selected?
A. I m not too sure. I'm pretty sure I will have to qualify by the FINA set times.

13. Why Auburn?
A. Because they are the best and the coaches and team were so welcoming. The coaching staff is amazing and I thank them for giving me the chance to be a part of this great team.

14. Ok, that's just about it, apart from the following…I don't know if you caught the Brooke Hanson feature in November edition of Swimming World, but the mag likes to do a quick fact box file. It's pretty straightforward, so if you have the time please could you fill in the
Height- 5'"8
Weight – 132lbs
DoBirth – 16th September 83
Place of Birth – Harare, Zimbabwe
Current Home…Suburb of Auburn, or campus, or? – Living in a house with three of my best friends from the team: Anne, Twanie and Lala
Club – I know
Coach(es) – I know but please add if more than one coach gets a mention
Boyfriend name? – Ryan
Any pets? – No but I really want a dog
Favourite food: Chocolate, really bad sweet tooth
Favourite book: Drum Beat
Favourite movie: Don't really have a favourite
Favourite music – Enjoy all
Secret plan in life (one that you don't mind revealing!) – To open my own restaurant

Many thanks, Kirsty, and all the very best for 2005.

To reach Craig Lord for comments or reactions, please e-mail