STANDING at 1,95m tall, one would mistake the gangly Bulawayo-born Juma Phiri for a US National Basketball Association (NBA) player.
BY FORTUNE MBELE
But Phiri (44), a world class track and field athlete during his heydays, is the man who holds the national high jump record of 2,16m which local athletes have failed to beat since 1999.
Reaching that feat was ground-breaking for Phiri, and that record still stands unscathed. But instead of being happy about it, the fact that no one has so far been able to topple his record has left him pointing a finger at the National Athletics Association of Zimbabwe (Naaz).
“Obviously, I am excited that my record has not been broken for a long time but I am equally saddened by this development….I find it hard to believe that my record still stands unbeaten when there is so much talent in athletics in the country,” he said.
“I was approached to assist in coaching during the regional Under-20 Youth Games in Bulawayo and I saw some boys who had the potential, but I think Naaz has not been serious in developing and nurturing this talent. It is so sad that even some yester-year athletes and coaches have not been recognised and are sidelined by the association, hence most of the top coaches have abandoned athletics and moved to football,” he added.
Phiri is a holder of an international coaching certificate in athletics, in addition to a sports management certificate from the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa. However, after his efforts to contribute to local athletics were continuously frustrated, he says he opted to go into football administration.
He is currently the welfare manager of Zifa Southern Region Division One side Talen Vision.
Phiri sites examples of other top athletics coaches who are now involved in football and these include former athletics coach Kenneth Nyape, who is now the fitness trainer at Premier Soccer League outfit Hwange, Bhekuzulu Khumalo, who was coach at Sparrows Athletics Club in Bulawayo and James Rugwevera, a Mathematics teacher at Mpopoma High School.
Khumalo and Rugwevera are now at Southern Region Division One football side Bulawayo Chiefs.
“Why have all these guys run away from athletics? As for me, I am willing and passionate to come back into athletics and change the sport because there is talent out there,” Phiri said.
Nyape, a sprints coach, produced the now US-based athletes Lewis banda (400m), Elvis Mzamo (100m), Norma Jean harry (100-200m), Tatenda Goronga (100-200m) and Tawanda Chiwira (400m).
“Why would a coach like that abandon athletics? It’s simply because he has been sidelined. We have an association that is run by administrators who are not former athletes, with no vision for the sport, only taking pleasure in accompanying athletes to international competitions like the Olympics,” Phiri said in reference to the current naaz board.
A product of Hamilton High School in Bulawayo, Phiri says he was initially into sprints and football and got into high jump by chance.
His colleague had fallen ill and after being called up to fill the void, he came out tops before advancing to the inter-schools, zonal, district, provincial and national competitions.
It proved to be the beginning of a successful career in the sport and Phiri never looked back, up until he raptured the patellar tendon at the age of 25 in 1999 — the same year he broke the 10-year record with his 2,16m at the Colliery Stadium.
After the injury, he became a coach at Hwange Athletics Club in 2000, taking over as sports officer at Hwange Colliery following the death of Paul Chapita. He later moved to Shangani Mine in the same capacity from 2004 to 2012.
He then left the country for South Africa where he was gym manager at Muscle Zone in Auckland Park in Johannesburg.
During his time in South Africa — Phiri says he worked as a personal trainer to renowned soap opera actors Seputla Sebogodi, Menzi Ngubane and Thabiso Mokhethi who played Kenneth Mashaba, Sibusiso Dlomo and Samuel Khumalo in the popular Generations series.
He returned home and established the Juma Phiri Athletics Academy in 2014 but it did not bear fruit due to lack of support.
Phiri was born at Mpilo Hospital in Bulawayo on February 2 1973 and went to Gampu and Henry Low primary schools before proceeding to Hamilton High School for his secondary education.