THE notoriety tag is the last thing Andy Flower and Henry Olonga had expected when they donned black armbands to protest President Robert Mugabe’s excesses on February 10 2003.
The cricketers did it during a 2003 World Cup group stage match against Namibia at Harare Sports Cub – a stone’s throw from Mugabe’s official residence.
“We are making a silent plea to those responsible to stop the abuse of human rights in Zimbabwe,” the cricketers said in joint statement.
“We pray that our small action may help to restore sanity and dignity to our nation.
“In doing so we are mourning the death of democracy in our beloved Zimbabwe.”
Soon after their protest, Flower and Olonga fled into exile fearing they could add to the statistics of human rights abuses they alleged were being perpetrated by Mugabe.
In the eyes of the international world, the two sportsmen were brave enough to speak out on behalf of an oppressed and suffering populace. But strangely, the majority of Zimbabweans – on whose behalf Flower and Olonga were supposedly acting – still found the duo’s valiance misplaced.
The pair was simply notorious, we were told. This coming after Mugabe had allegedly stolen yet another election was quite baffling.
I remember even a number of local journalists who were at Harare Sports Club that day concurring that Flower and Olonga had been up to “mischief” in order to attract the international media.
Propaganda purveyors conveniently reminded us that Flower was a white man bitter over the seizure of white-owned farms and that Olonga was an unoriginal Zimbabwean “lucky to play for our country”.
The two players should have been taken aback when they were accused of abusing sport by doing their political protest during an international match.
Five years since the unprecedented protest – which cost the duo their international careers – we have not seen any other sportsman daring to dabble in politics.
It’s either they fear a backlash if their views are contrary to the government’s, or they simply feel sport has nothing to do with politics and vice versa.
This week I asked several sportspersons what they thought about tomorrow’s watershed elections, but the majority of them chose not to have their views known.
“I’m not interested in discussing politics. I’m into football and politics has nothing to do with the game,” one football club administrator told me.
His views are shared by many sportspersons today.
Whenever the question whether politics and sport should mix has been raised – and it has been ad infinitum – it always stirs emotive but inconclusive debates.
Nevertheless, even if sportspersons don’t like it, politics and sports are very much intertwined.
For starters, there are no sporting events in Zimbabwe since last weekend because the police feared football matches, for example, could provide a platform for political campaigns, protests or violence.
Now, tell me if sport and politics do not mix?
Up to this day Britain is still trying to map ways to stop Zimbabwe from touring England next year for two Tests and three one-day internationals as a way to protest against Mugabe’s human rights record.
Still they don’t mix?
Two years ago Zimbabwe was conspicuous by its absence from the multi-sport Commonwealth Games that groups almost exclusively former British colonies.
Zimbabwe seceded from the Commonwealth in December 2003 in frustration after the country was suspended from the group over Mugabe’s human rights abuses.
Zanu PF and government bootlickers applauded the pullout.
“How does Zimbabwe get damaged by quitting the Commonwealth?” one of Mugabe’s cronies asked. “What were the advantages to Zimbabwe in the first place, apart from the actions of camaraderie?”
True, the Commonwealth at times appears to be nothing more than a social movement with no common wealth to be shared.
But the political stage the Commonwealth offers has been critical in keeping overweening peers – for example Pakistan’s Pervez Musharraf – under pressure to repent and do the right thing.
The Commonwealth has been successful in bringing about democratic change in South Africa and Fiji.
By pulling out of the grouping, suffering Zimbabweans were thus deprived of an important voice that could have continued to embarrass Mugabe by holding up the template of the Harare Declaration.
Though Mugabe might have seen the Commonwealth as nothing more than an imperial anachronism, the four-yearly Games that come with membership of the grouping still served as a springboard for many athletes whose chance of international exposure elsewhere would have been remote.
You can imagine what such an international stage would mean to Zimbabwean athletes who, we are afraid, can only hear of exposure as far as HIV and Aids is concerned.
Zimbabwe had been fairly successful at the Games since its debut in 1934 as Rhodesia, amassing seven gold, 15 silver and 22 bronze to total 44 medals at the up to the Manchester edition in 2002 – their last time to participate.
Since Independence from Britain in 1980, Zimbabwe had only missed the Edinburgh Games in 1986 as one of the countries that boycotted over apartheid South Africa.
How ironic that 10 years later, Zimbabwe was not part of the “friendly games” for a not-so-different reason!
While Mugabe and his hangers-on rumble on with their soporific rhetoric about Britain wanting to recolonise Zimbabwe, they should be reminded that they have denied our athletes an international platform to showcase their talents.
Thus far Zimbabwean politicians have abused sports.
Now the big question is whether sport can stop political abuse.
Though sporting sanctions helped end apartheid in South Africa, the precedent presents tricky situations in most cases.
Sporting sanctions don’t work if they are meant to put pressure on people like Mugabe to give up power and stop their human rights abuses. He has not demonstrated any conscience in the way he has supervised the destruction of Zimbabwe’s economy.
And anyone thinks he gives a damn about sport?
There is consensus – and I believe Mugabe secretly acknowledges as well – that the old man has authored our hunger, anger, hopelessness, penury and everything that makes our lives miserable.
Sportsmen are not immune to the crises.
The over 100 000% inflation affects us all. And it does affect club owners as well who can’t pay players decent salaries.
The economic crisis affects football spectators who are asked to pay as much as $500 million to watch Dynamos versus Caps United from the VIP enclosure.
I can’t even talk about sportspersons whose careers were cut short after sustaining injuries for which medicine could not be afforded or found at Zimbabwe’s hospitals and pharmacies. Now I wonder what more Mugabe can do to sports, let alone the economy, that he has not done over the years.
Flower and Olonga showed their disgust in their own way.
The rest of the sportspersons can also do it their way: vote tomorrow.
Politics has everything to do with sport.
Sport enthusiasts have become acquainted with the term wooden spoon, which essentially refers to a booby or mock award given to a runner-up or the team or athlete who comes last in a competition.
Hope we can all play the game tomorrow and leave Mugabe with the wooden spoon.
Independent sport view with Darlington Majonga