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Olympics

Causes for hope in Zimbabwe

Ngoni Makusha's story is not one of political violence, sham elections and seven figure inflation rates. His is one of a freshman who jumped farther than any one else at the NCAA outdoor track and field championships this year. Neither is the story of swimmer Kirsty Coventry, who earlier this year swam the 200-meter backstroke faster than anyone ever has.

But Makusha and Coventry are both Olympians from Zimbabwe, where 2.2 million percent inflation rates and Robert Mugabe's election thuggery have left the country's 12 million people scrambling for survival and have crowded out any good news escaping from the Southern Africa nation. Political violence, sham elections, and seven figure inflation rates have become their story.

"I would hate for Ngoni to win the gold medal and have everyone ask him about how bad the political situation can be," says Ken Harnden, a former Zimbabwean Olympian and one of Makusha's coaches at Florida State. "But you can't escape the headlines."

Those headlines ("113 opposition members killed since vote," just to pick a one) mean bad news will shadow each of Makusha's 27-foot long jumps as the Seminoles freshman tries to join Coventry as the only individual Olympic medalists in their country's history.

Only a country since 1980, Zimbabwe has won just four Olympic medals. The 1980 Moscow Olympics provided the first, when the country was asked to field a team after the boycott deprived the women's field-hockey tournament of every team except the host. In its own Miracle off Ice, the all-white hockey team shocked the Soviets to win gold.

Zimbabwe's other medals all belong to Coventry, a national hero whom Mugabe called his "golden girl" after she won three medals in Athens, including gold in the 200-meter backstroke. With her country mired in a spate of racial tension, Coventry returned with her medals to Zimbabwe to attend a special dinner at Mugabe's presidential palace. Roughly 5,000 people greeted her at Harare International Airport, and Mugabe later gave her $50,000 of "pocket money" and a diplomatic passport.

"I remember her win," said Makusha, who was living just outside Harare in '04. "It meant everything to people in Zimbabwe."

Though Coventry has a chance for an even bigger medal haul after winning four golds at last month's world championships -- and Makusha is an outside shot to add one in the long jump -- prospects for their country have only darkened. Food is often hard to come by, and few outside of Mugabe's circle of influence treat his election -- he was the only person on the July ballot after violent, strong-armed tactics forced his opponent out of the race -- as legitimate.

Makusha and Coventry come from vastly different worlds within Zimbabwe's highly stratified society. Coventry's family employed servants, a common practice among Zimbabwe's elite, and had a pool in their backyard that got Kirsty hooked on the sport after a dislocated knee forced her out of field hockey, tennis and track at age 14. Makusha came from a rural village where running water is a luxury. Kids walk miles to school each day and often live on one square meal a day.

"Just the fact that he graduated from high school should be considered more impressive than his jumping 27 feet," says Harnden, who claims conditions have barely improved in the 20 years since he left Zimbabwe to run track at North Carolina. "When you're just trying to survive everyday, how long could you keep telling yourself , 'I'm going to be the best long jumper in the world'?"

But the travails of being an athlete in Zimbabwe transcend social boundaries. When then-Auburn swimming coach Kim Brackin went to Harare for a winter recruiting trip in 2000, Coventry could only swim a 100 IM for the coach before hopping out of the water blue in the face. None of Zimbabwe's pools are heated, and the country has no indoor pools. Coventry often had to take months off in the winter, while top swimmers trained year round.

"We never had lane lines [in Zimbabwe], it was just find a spot and go," says Coventry, who was recruited by numerous schools in the SEC, where many of Southern Africa's top swimmers end up. "Now it's like, 'How could I train without lane lines?'"

The country also has just one rubber track, with athletes like Makusha training on dirt and grass instead. Makusha had less than a year of actual coaching when he arrived in Tallahassee. Because of his connection to the country, Harnden keeps tabs on its top athletes and has recruited several at Florida State. He sends those who aren't quite skilled enough for the likes of FSU -- which has won three consecutive national titles -- to other schools around the country, but no more than a handful of Zimbabweans make it to U.S. collegiate programs each year.

The lack of Zimbabweans populating U.S. track programs is not for lack of talent, Harnden insists. Education is so porous in Zimbabwe that few athletes have the grades to qualify for American schools, and Zimbabwe only has seven public universities of its own.

"As an athlete of any sort, once you're done with high school, it's essentially a dead end in Zimbabwe if you're not fortunate enough to go to college," says Harnden. "To get an education and compete at a high level, you have to come to the U.S."

With PresidentGeorge Bush recently widening sanctions against Mugabe's regime, international reporters in Beijing will undoubtedly ask Coventry and Makusha as much about their athletic feats as how their country, once the "breadbasket of Africa," has depressed to the point of releasing $1 billion dollar bills -- worth approximately the same as one U.S. dollar, and not enough to buy a loaf of bread.

For her part, Coventry avoids talking politics, clamming up when asked about her post-Olympics dinner with Mugabe, offering only that "it was something we had to do." Family, rather than politics, is what weighs on the minds of the Zimbabwean athletes, especially given that phones lines are often difficult to come by in the country.

"The last couple months it's been scary to read things 'cause I'm so far away, and when you read it you're like, 'What the hell?'" says Coventry, whose parents still live in Harare. "I call my parents, and they're like, No, it's not as bad it seems."

Harnden, Makusha, and fellow Zimbabwean Seminole track athletes Brian Dzingai and Brian Chibudu hold lively political debates on news streaming from their homeland, but Makusha avoids the topic in public. When asked if he ever worries for his family, he merely replies, "God is great, and I know he will protect them."

"Ngoni does a pretty good job of compartmentalizing things because track's so important to him," says Dennis Nobles, the jumps coach at Florida State. "But once he walks away from a training session, you can see he's a little worried about what's going on with his family and the political situation."

With human-rights standoffs on Darfur and Tibet and even within China already making headlines, the games present a unique chance for Makusha and Coventry, along with Zimbabwe's 11 other athletes, to shine positive light on on the country's plight.

Coventry, who set three short-course world records earlier this year, is a favorite to medal in each of her four events. And though Harnden says the 2012 London Games will be the true coming out for Makusha, who also runs several sprints, and several younger Zimbabweans, the long jumper's NCAA-winning leap of 8.30 meters -- into a 1.2-meter headwind -- would have earned him fifth in Athens.

"Things definitely need to change super fast [in Zimbabwe]," says Coventry, emphasizing her favorite adjective, 'super.' "But it's a phase. Now it's time for me to shine a bright light on Zimbabwe instead of the negative stuff. I know that's a little bit of why I'm still swimming. People at home need to know they can still reach their dreams and still have hope."

Without the luxury of already holding three Olympic medals like Coventry, Makusha is still forced to dream. He is already doing his best to make sure he, and his family, don't contribute to Zimbabwe's estimated 80 percent unemployment rate, sending part of his NCAA scholarship stipend home to pay for his younger sister's school.

"Ten U.S. dollars feeds, clothes, and educates a child for a month in Zimbabwe, so you can imagine what a full scholarship looks like to a kid over there," says Harnden. "If he wins an Olympic medal and signs a contract for $100,000, just imagine what that will mean for him and his family."

What it would mean is that Makusha would be making 500 times the per capita GDP in his homeland. He is a business major and once his track career ends -- which he hopes to delay by winning a medal -- he wants to start his own company. But where?

"I don't care," he says from Florida, 10,000 miles removed from the strife engulfing his country, all thanks to his ability to jump 27 feet. "Wherever I can be happy."

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