ASKÂ forÂ anyone’s opinion of Victor Olonga and rest assuredÂ the answers would include controversial, radicalÂ and volatile.
Even the only thing that is undisputed about him, his excellent sporting talents, draw a diverseÂ description: amazing athlete, wasted talent, top-class.
Olonga, the former Zimbabwe rugby captain, has been fighting for his entire adult life. After spending seven years playing professional rugby in England, Bulawayo, his hometown, is quite an unlikely place to find him: away from the controversies and storms, away from the hustle and bustle of London, and away from his many friends and adversaries inÂ rugby circles both at home and abroad.
For the first time after retiring and retuning home to set up businesses in Bulawayo he spoke about his career, his self-exiled brother Henry, his shattered dreams, his regrets and his radical political beliefs which have not won him many friends.
Olonga played over 30 international matches for Zimbabwe, captaining in fewer than six of them before being sacked as skipper for spearheading a player boycott in 2001.
Among his regrets in the Sables colours are the defeats and being played out of position.
“It was difficult to be competitive,” Olonga says. “And for someone who wanted to be competitive and win it was very hard to take. In that aspect my international career was not asÂ fulfilling as it should have been. We lost too many games and got into a context where losing became acceptable. Playing for such a team, it was always difficult to show potential. It was very difficult for me.”
Olonga is remembered as a complete fullback, strong both in the tackles and in open play. But herein lie his fury. He believes he had the talents to play at flyhalf, an opportunity which he says was closed to him in the Zimbabwe setup and in the UK.
“XVs rugby is like a company. You’ve got the guy who is at the top, normally the president or the chief executive,” he says. “Then you have the manager, who is the captain and is the guy on the ground. Look at the South Africa setup. Most black players don’t play in key positions. Like the flyhalf, that’s the guy who controls things. Fine, South Africa have two black Zim guys who play prop, but we all know that the hooker controls the front-row. The flyhalf controls the backline. But that’s the world for you… you have Obama being elected president in the US, but that’s a one-off thing.
“When I played for Zim it was very hostile because there were very few black people. It was easy to just give a black guy the ball and say ‘run and put it over’. I didn’t like that. I wanted a situation where they could ask me to find a way to cross from 22 to 22, to set up defence patterns and stuff like that. By not being given that responsibility you end up having everything being done for you. It changes you as a person.
“When I arrived at the club in England (Penzance & Newlyn) there was a guy from South Africa who said ‘use this guy at flyhalf’. I had to go overseas to play flyhalf. Here they didn’t even want me at centre! Then this guy came and took the position from me. It created factions in the team. It became very unpleasant.”
No subject gets him more emotional than his younger brother Henry, who retired from the Zimbabwe cricket team and left the country after he and compatriot Andy Flower wore black armbands to mourn “the death of democracy” in Zimbabwe during a 2003 World Cup match.
He was quoted by the BBC then saying he didn’t agree with his brother’s views.
He repeated his stance: “What I felt at the time, from my understanding, is that Flower wanted to do it on his own. Before the armband thing there was a report in some newspaper that this was going to happen.
But Henry had a special relationship with Flower so I believe he wanted to support his cause. We can spend the whole life debating it. I obviously support freedom and human rights. But I always support liberation movements. I understand the situation that was there for people to go to the bush and fight.
The armband thing… I think there was another way to do it than to embarrass leaders. I don’t think it was the right way to do it.
“I told Henry when he came over to England that what he did was not in his best interests. It did not help him. It helped Flower. Flower knew where he was going and he should have advised Henry properly. He’s caretaker coach of England now, and where is my brother?
“I never wanted boycotts. People don’t do that with me. Sometimes it’s better not to be told you are smart when you know what you are doing is the right thing. People jump around celebrating Obama’s victory. But they forget how black people came to America. They came as slaves, as donkeys, as savages! You can’t forget that. Henry forgot the history of this country. In 1974 people were dying in the bushes. You cannot forget that!”
The big question is just how can two brothers be so different?
“Henry is more accessible to people,” says Victor. “He’s more liked. He has more manners. He was headboy in both junior and high schools, that’s the difference I’m talking about.”
The two brothers were born in Zambia of a Kenyan father and Zimbabwean mother, and grew up in Bulawayo. They had a privileged background, attending REPS primary school and Plumtree High.
Their father, a doctor in Bulawayo, wanted Henry to represent Kenya at the Olympics as an athlete, but he chose Zimbabwe. Victor never had to choose.
“I’ve always been a Zimbabwean. This is where I grew up and leant my sports. This is where I leant everything.”
A veteran of two Sevens World Cups in 1997 and 2001, Olonga had words of encouragement to the current side, which will play in the World Cup in Dubai next month.
“I’ve watched these guys play and they are a good side,” he says. “This is because of the circuit. They play together regularly so they are more like a club than a national side. If they play the same people they play against in the World Series at the World Cup, they stand a better chance of being successful because they come up against these people more often. If the other teams bring people from XVs it will be more difficult. Teams like the All Blacks do have XVs guys who are contracted to play Sevens.
“I’m not sure who will be in the final squad, but they got some very good players like Cleopas Makotose and Daniel Hondo who I played with in the national side when I was about to leave. Then guys like Ndaza (Slater Ndlovu) and Gardner (Nechironga) who were my teammates at club level. These are all good players.”
He says Zimbabwe will do better at Sevens than at XVs.
“Sevens suits them more. Zimbabwe always struggle at XVs because of the forwards. Our forwards do not lay the platform. In Sevens it’s not an issue because it’s a loose game. Players are able to show their talent.
It’s more open, broken-down play. As a back in XVs you have three guys in front of you, another two and then three again. I never liked Sevens because it’s just too broken-down. But for others it’s the best place Zimbabwe can compete.”
Now 35 and back home in Bulawayo, Olonga can reflect on his stormy past in a much more relaxed environment.
“The lifestyle in England was suffocating,” he says. “I was struggling to get to grips with the life there. I couldn’t handle it. Watching Big Brother and that kind of nonsense and people acting like things are normal when they are not.
“Rugby is over for me. I was banned first by the Matabeleland board and then by Zimbabwe. Being suspended as captain is a serious issue. I played as few games when I returned but decided not to get involved. Life is obviously much slower here (in Bulawayo). It’s better than all the places I’ve been to all over the world. It’s more realistic.”
BY ENOCK MUCHINJO