BY DANIEL NHAKANISO
IN normal circumstances, record-breaking Zimbabwean wheelchair racing champion Margret Bangajena would have been preparing for an international competition or yet another local marathon, where she would have been aiming for top spot in the women’s wheelchair racing category.
Even though wheelchair racing is the least rewarding category in local marathon events, the prize money she has won in various races around the country has provided Bangajena with meagre earnings to look after her family.
Sadly these are not normal times. Nowadays Bangajena has been confined to her wheelchair at her home in Harare’s high-density suburb of Dzivaresekwa; and cannot compete regularly as she had become accustomed to as most marathons have either been postponed or cancelled altogether due to the coronavirus pandemic.
To make matters worse for Bangajena, when Covid-19 restrictions came into effect in Zimbabwe, the 43-year-old para-athlete was in the final stages of a training camp organised by the Zimbabwe National Paralympic Committee ahead of the 2020 Tokyo Paralympic qualifiers in Dubai.
“It’s been a really difficult time for us, Covid-19 has had a very negative impact for us as athletes with disabilities,” Bangajena told The Sports Hub in an interview last week.
“When the lockdown started in March we were in the final stages of preparing for the qualifiers for the Tokyo Paralympic Games which were going to be held in Dubai. In fact, we were just two days from departure and we had worked so hard for the qualifiers. Personally I had put in a lot of work and was feeling confident, but all our efforts were in vain and we now have to start all over again.
“In addition to missing out on the Olympic qualifiers we also had several local races that we were preparing for such as the Econet Victoria Falls Marathon, PPC, Tanganda, Old Mutual marathons, we survive on prize money from those races and the financial impact for us has been devastating.”
Due to the pandemic, most athletes like Bangajena have not been able to train as usual, but are now slowly getting back to preparations and hoping to attend some events early in 2021. The Paralympics were postponed to 2021 and are now scheduled to start on August 24 due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
“We have recently started training again and I’m working hard with the hope that anytime we might be told that we can now compete and go to the qualifiers.
“I’m still hopeful of qualifying for the Tokyo Paralympics. I will go there with the target of qualifying for the Tokyo Games.”
Bangajena, who is also a representative for athletes living with disabilities, is hopeful that those local athletes with disabilities will also benefit from the government’s $10 million Covid-19 relief package meant to support local athletes during the pandemic.
The fund was launched on July 10 to help national sports associations, individual athletes and community clubs during the global health crisis, but Bangajena and her counterparts are yet to benefit despite submitting their applications four months ago.
“I am an athlete representative for athletes with disabilities in Zimbabwe and at the moment there has not been any financial relief for local athletes. We completed some forms, which were sent to the SRC (Sports and Recreation Commission), but for now I haven’t heard of anyone who has received anything but we are still hopeful that we will receive some relief funds. Most athletes with disabilities survive either through sport or vending but for those who survive entirely on sport Covid-19 has had a serious impact on their livelihood because for the last seven months they have been struggling to make ends meet.”
Bangajena was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 15. The disease claimed her left leg before confining her to a wheelchair. At the time the unassuming Bangajena felt as though the world was crumbling around her. But unbeknown to her, that early life of tragedy would set the tone for a successful sporting career.
Bangajena — who has over 100 gold medals from different competitions — has been named Zimbabwe’s Sportswoman of the Year with Disability an astonishing 11 times, while she has thrice been nominated for the Regional Annual Sports Awards (RASA).
To complement her athletics career, the Danhiko-based athlete doubles up as a seed analyst at the Lands, Agriculture, Water, Climate and Rural Resettlement ministry.
Despite achieving relative success on the international scene, Zimbabwean athletes with disabilities have struggled to receive equal recognition and support compared to their able-bodied counterparts.
Since attaining independence in 1980, Zimbabwe has won a total of two gold medals, nine silver, and six bronze at the Paralympic Games.
Retired wheelchair tennis star Nyasha Mharakurwa, who represented Zimbabwe at the London Paralympic Games in 2012, says athletes with disabilities have been hit hardest by the financial impact of Covid-19 as they generally earn lower than their able-bodies counterparts.
“In general, athletes with disabilities’ earnings are way below when compared to many able-bodied sports and most of the athletes rely on funding that is given to sports bodies in their countries as well as support from family and friends with only a few having personal sponsorships of significance,” Mharakurwa said.
He added: “If you follow that chain, you will see that a lot of the sports bodies that have been helping to fund a lot of these athletes have also cut down on their budgets because they also have been affected by the impact of Covid-19. “Of course, nations are different and there are some that have done well in supporting their athletes in these difficult times, but again it is mostly the top high-performance athletes that would benefit the most and not everyone else.
“But such is the chaos caused by Covid-19 around the world for everyone in every field so in that context nobody is any better if you think about it.”
Zimbabwe National Paralympic Committee president Michael Bulagango also bemoaned the lack of facilities specifically meant for athletes with disabilities, which would have made it easier for them to be cleared to resume their activities.
“Unfortunately as a Paralympic movement, we don’t have our own stadium or facilities where we can say we are going to have the track or equipment fumigated,” he said.