It is little wonder Kirsty Coventry, Zimbabwe’s sport minister, looks at her counterparts in other countries and thinks: “Man, you have it easy.”
Over the past two months alone, Zimbabwe’s cricket teams have been suspended from global competition, the country’s football association has been put in danger of disbandment, and the men’s football team have been banned from next year’s southern African championship after Coventry pulled the plug on Zimbabwe hosting this year’s edition just three months ahead of time.
There is more. Zimbabwe’s male footballers threatened to walk away from a dismal Africa Cup of Nations campaign after a pay dispute, their female counterparts refused to play their recent Olympic qualifier for the same reason, and having overcome major financial troubles to punch far above their weight on their World Cup debut, the nation’s netballers are still waiting on promised bonuses.
“I do feel like we’re just trying to put fires out,” admits Coventry. Such is a politician’s life in one of the world’s more unstable countries in the aftermath of the long regime of Robert Mugabe, who died on Friday, two years after he was deposed. It is a position Coventry never had any aspirations to fulfil. In fact, politics is a world she still has little desire to be part of. But she is here now, so she is going to do all she can to make a positive difference.
Coventry, 35, is arguably Zimbabwe’s greatest ever sporting star, with her seven swimming medals making her Africa’s most decorated Olympian. Having only retired after Rio 2016, her exploits were recent enough for her fame to endure in a country short on truly world-class sporting talent.
A life of charity work, television appearances and growing her own swimming foundation beckoned until one day last September when president Emmerson Mnangagwa suddenly announced Coventry as the country’s new sports minister. Until that moment, Coventry had no idea. Welcome to Zimbabwean politics.
“The president announced it on TV and some friends called me to tell me I was minister,” she says.
“I had seen a few things on social media before the announcement and thought it was strange, but the list the president was working off had been leaked. They were in the process of reaching out and talking to people, but when it got leaked I think he felt it was necessary to make the announcement so we had conversations after that.
“The position came as a surprise – I really wasn’t expecting it. I had only found out I was pregnant five days before, so when I say there was a lot of emotion, there was a lot of emotion!”
Even without the added distraction of the birth of her first child Ella in May, Coventry is the first to admit adjusting to her new life has been no easy ride. With the country in the midst of an economic crisis that has caused chronic food and water shortages, as well as huge rises in inflation, Zimbabwe’s government has recently been accused of state-sponsored brutality after an increase in violence against protesters.
As the only independent member of the cabinet, unattached to the governing ZANU-PF party, Coventry faces frequent calls to resign. Her position as the only white face in the cabinet has also prompted suggestions she is being used as a pawn by the government to placate the country’s white population.
“I really don’t think so,” she counters. “I know from the conversations I’ve had that I was appointed because of my career. I’ve also been involved in the International Olympic Committee, so because of my understanding of international sport and young people there’s a lot of things the president looked at to decide I was qualified to do this position.
“If we look at any government, you can say, ‘He was put here for this reason’ or, ‘She was put here for this reason’. But I have stopped listening to those inputs. As long as we can achieve something, move forward and it is positive, that’s all I really care about.
“I am independent and I am Zimbabwean, and being Zimbabwean to me means you don’t have to belong to a party, you just have to want to do better for your country.”
It is this determination to make a real long-term difference for sport in Zimbabwe that forces Coventry to admit she “can’t say whether things will get better over the next few months”. But after five sports ministers in the 18 months before she took charge, she is adamant she can be the one to bring much-needed change.
If that involves the short-term collateral of tearing down the established regimes – and she is certain it does – then so be it.
“I want to try and be as open and honest with everyone as I can because that’s the only way we can create change,” she says. “It is a challenge and it is frustrating, and we do hit a wall every now and again. We have to be honest with where we are right now – and sport is a challenge.
“With sports like cricket and football, there’s a lot of baggage there. There has previously been corruption and mismanagement of funds, there hasn’t been transparency and good governance. We are honing in on where the good governance is and getting audits done because we need a clean up. I don’t think some of our boards have been strong enough, so then you have people with individual intentions instead of for the good of the sport or the country.”
They are bold words for someone who has little political experience, but Coventry is not afraid to upset people to make a real impact. She remains critical of the International Cricket Council for banning the country’s cricketers for what was deemed to be political interference – “I was very adamant that’s not what happened,” she insists – but says the fallout will prove beneficial for the sport in Zimbabwe.
“Cricket is one of those sports with a long history, a lot of baggage and a lot of mismanagement,” she says. “It needed to happen because it shook the tree and allowed me to get everyone around the table to figure out how to move forward. But it was heartbreaking; it impacted our players in a very negative way.”
She says the Zimbabwe Football Association also has “a lot of baggage and is known for doing terrible deals”. On its money troubles, she adds: “It just comes down to being proactive and not reactive, having proper structures in place and professionalising our sport.”
As with everything Coventry wants to achieve, her motivation comes from those at the heart of the sport in mind. She likens the hardship and upheaval to the decade she spent training as a swimmer before Olympic medals arrived. And she desperately wants to halt the talent drain that means some of the country’s best sportspeople leave Zimbabwe to represent other nations.
“If I get to the point where there’s too many roadblocks or I just don’t feel I’m being supported, then maybe my mind would change to say I’m not achieving anything – so I would resign,” she says. “But that’s not what I’ve experienced so far – I’ve had full support from everybody. It’s been an interesting journey. We keep going and see where it takes us.”
One athlete’s unlikely quest to succeed where the politicians have failed.