READ a newspaper in South Africa and chances are there is a story on the sports pages about a Zimbabwean winning a race somewhere in the country.
It seems like Zimbabwean athletes get more recognition here than back home where the media sometimes miss their exploits.
Veteran Marco Mambo’s dramatic shot at a record fourth victory in the gruelling Two Ocean’s race a fortnight ago went almost unnoticed.
For many Zimbabweans, competing in races down south is not just a professional move, but a gateway out of the poverty brought about by the economic meltdown in their country which is not helped by the pittance in prize money from the far-in-between local races.
Over the last five years hundreds of Zimbabweans, both household names and unknown quantities, have made the great trek to join athletics clubs across South Africa. Although competing under the banners of their clubs, the country of birth on most occasions is acknowledged in the media despite the races not carrying international status.
Athletics clubs are owned and sponsored by big businesses such as banks (Nedbank) and popular clothing retailers (Mr Price).
As part of their social responsibility engagements, the companies run budgets for recreational activities – and for many athletics is a simple and popular way to plough back into the community and at the same time promote themselves.
For many Zimbabwean soccer players, it remains a big dream to be signed by a club in South Africa. Soccer clubs in South Africa normally scout for players in Zimbabwe or bring them over for trials before using the chequebook.
Does it work the same in athletics?
“No,” replied Cuan Walker, manager of the Durban-based Mr Price Athletics Club.
“We have Zimbabweans who have been with us for some time and they normally recommend to us their friends back home. We do not go to Zimbabwe to scout for runners.”
Mr Price is home to 20 Zimbabweans, the most prominent ones being Mambo, Samukeliso Moyo, Chiedza Chokore and Muchaneta Gwata.
Walker explains why it is necessary for foreign athletes to be on the books of clubs.
“To be able to run in a race you need to be part of a club,” he says.Â “You cannot enter a race as an individual. They won’t allow you.”
This might sounds like a marriage of convenience: is it? No, says Walker.
“There are a lot of benefits. At my club we incentivise performance. Besides winning races, some of our athletes are on retainers.”
He says athletes make enough money to live comfortable lives.
“The money is good,” Walker says. “It’s not like overseas, but they can survive. Last season Samukeliso Moyo earned over R400 000.”
Most Zimbabwean athletes are not permanently based in South Africa, only training there for specific races
They are not alone. A huge number of Kenyans and Ethiopians have joined them down south.
Â “They are very good,” says Walker of the Zimbabwean contingent. “They are not the best like the Kenyans and Ethiopians, but in SA they run well against our athletes.”
BY ENOCK MUCHINJO IN JOHANNESBURG