TeamZim at IAAF World Junior Championships 2014: Of Bare Feet And Late Visas

Team Zimbabwe will leave Eugene, Oregon with questions of “What could have been?” plaguing their thoughts. The trimmed down five athlete and three officials Zimbabwe delegation at the just ending IAAF 2014 World Junior Championships ended their bumpy run with humiliation and disappointment. As they fly home on Tuesday, we are left with more questions than answers about the state of Zimbabwean youth athletic development.

Four hundred metre hurdler Pride Lusinga opened the games for the team with a respectable 54,25 result in his heat in the pouring Oregon rain, not a time that could propel him farther in the competition. Sprinter Michael Songore of Peterhouse brought the nation pride by coming second in his 200m heat with a respectable 21,68 time. A recurrence of what has proven to be a persistent groin injury, however, left Songore facing a difficult decision. The consultant physiotherapist at the IAAF games advised him either to proceed to his earned semi-final race a few hours later or save himself for the 4x100m relay in which he was scheduled to run with his teammates the following day, explaining that participating full throttle in both races could further exacerbate his injury. Songore chose to take one for the team, and forfeit his semi-final heat on Thursday for the relay on Friday. The world simply saw a DNS next to his name, and Songore was unable to record what might have been a PBT against such a strong field of contenders. Unfortunately, Zimbabwean press have been quick to condemn Songore rather than research the reason for his non-appearance.

As Friday night drew closer, Zimbabweans were glued to their television sets to watch Enlitha Ncube, the fifteen year old talent from Silobela compete in the 1500m. Her excellent time from Botswana qualified her for IAAF and placed her half way through the field of contestants, all who were older than she. However, the world was left stunned as they watched Enlitha on the starting line barefoot, in the middle of a pack of runners clad in brightly colored spikes. Enlitha did run the full 1500m race barefoot on the hot polyurethane track in Oregon, finishing dead last in her heat and much behind her qualifying time recorded earlier in the year. While one could argue that Enlitha ran barefoot out of preference, the sight of her doing so on a man-made polyurethane track reinforced the perception of our athletes as having raw but uncultivated talent, and not being fully prepared or trained for what to expect at international competitions.

The final blow to the morale of Team Zimbabwe came when they were told they were not going to compete in the relay at all. While Lusinga, Songore and St George’s College student Kudakwashe Nyahuma were all in Oregon preparing for their relay event, the fourth member rounding off their relay squad, Shingirayi Hlangayo, remained in South Africa. Citing “visa difficulties” for Hlangayo, the team learned last minute that he was not coming to Oregon and therefore they did not have a full team and would be disqualified. The news was understandably discouraging to the whole team, their families and Zimbabweans home and abroad who were anticipating rooting for their relay. However, if disappointment can be quantified, it fell particularly hard on the shoulders of Songore, who had sacrificed his semi-final 200m birth for it, and Nyahuma whose family had financed his trip to Oregon solely for his participating in the relay event. With that, Team Zimbabwe’s participation in the WJC came to an abrupt halt.

The reaction on social media to this dismal showing of Team Zimbabwe, was one of outrage, incredulity and shame. Household names in Zimbabwean athletics have been quick to point out the shame of sending an athlete all that way to the international stage without proper kit, training or preparation. They questioned how a team could make visa and travel arrangements so last minute that they did not know whether or not their final relay team member would be able to join them.

And so the Oregon IAAF experience of Team Zimbabwe leaves us with more questions than answers: Once we identify and verify talent, how do we equip, nurture and develop that talent so that our Zimbabwean student athletes are prepared to compete on high international levels? How do we level the playing field so that athletes from disadvantaged backgrounds have the same sporting equipment and opportunities as their wealthier, private school counterparts? And how do we ensure that when we are sending a team abroad to represent the nation, we have planned in advance to ensure a smooth trip and the best possible standards under which our student athletes can prosper?

As they pack their bags to begin the long journey back to Harare, Team Zimbabwe’s experiences leave those questions hanging uncomfortably open-ended in the air. And the biggest question of all for sports development in Zimbabwe – Who is going to make the change? That is the one question for which we do have an answer: That change starts with each and every one of us.