AQUATIC COMPLEX, once home to the elite sport of swimming that turned Kirsty Coventry into a world brand, now stands like a neglected colossus in the high density suburb of Chitungwiza.
TAWANDA TAFIRENYIKA/JOHN MOKWETSI
The complex, where the clock stopped ticking at 12:36 (the year is unknown) is now patterned by running cracks which meanders the length and breadth of the swimming pool.
The squawking of birds — that have made a sanctuary of a home that once hosted top athletes from faraway lands like Nigeria, Morocco and Egypt — engulf the space.
The deep blue paint that once brightened the swimming pool and blended with the clear October skies of Zimbabwe has peeled off to reveal neglect and poverty. A poverty of sport, a poverty of water that has entrenched itself like a cliché since 1995 — an amazing 18 years ago.
The pool that is as dry as the Kalahari Desert of Namibia only quenches its thirst through revelers who take turns to buy each other a round of beer in bars housed there.
The echoes of patrons chatting and arguing about anything that ranges from national issues to the latest English Premiership League football matches is the only life that keeps this important venue sane.
In between gulps of beer and a game of pool, an employee from the Ministry of Public Works pauses before he spoke: “Where splashes of water used to be the sound people clapped to, the velvet voice of musicians like Macheso dominates this place.”
As if nostalgic he continues: “The sport died and music was born here.”
The Aquatic Complex in a bid to rise like the proverbial phoenix has been hosting musicians for a fee.
“$4 000 is what big musical shows pay us to keep the place running,” The employee said sinking the black ball. “Without that this would become a white elephant.”
It is both disarming and ironical that a good year 1995, when 46 countries participated in eighteen sports during the All-Africa Games, would be the last that the venue would close its doors to the respected sport.
In 1995, when the complex stood proud Zimbabwe hosted a record 6 000 athletes. Zimbabwe had impressed at the gigantic swimming pool when Kirsten Smith, Mandy Leach, Teresa Moodie and Shelley Dodds with their necks bedecked in bronze medals proudly sang the national anthem as they walked to the winner’s podium. They took third place in the women 4x200m Freestyle Relay Swimming with an impressive time of 8:51.54z.
It was a year that the world came alive to the prowess of a then young Mozambican runner Maria Mutola who stole the show here together with her cousin Tino Paulino. Mutola was to win awards and went on to become an 800m world champion.
The history is rich, but a community lives in nostalgia: “Swimming is a high end sport. Our schools do not have the facilities that some so called A schools have. The complex was our hope because that meant giving high density children a chance. That chance died in 1995 and we have been waiting for it since,” the employee said.
Perhaps a critical point given the undeniable fact that top swimmer Coventry was schooled at Dominic Covent High where she was well resourced and exposed to the sport.
Minister of Local Government, National Housing and Public Works Ignatius Chombo said he was still to familiarise himself with issues to do with the Aquatic Complex.
“I have not been to Chitungwiza Aquatic Complex because as you are aware we are just coming in. The best person to speak to on this at the moment is the principal director — (retired colonel Joseph Mhakayakora),’ said Chombo.
Mhakayakora could not be reached for comment.
But for 18 years the venue is crying out for leadership. With dust enveloping it’s once affluence status the employee asked rather rhetorically: “How much is needed to make this place regain its pomp?”
An imperative question that Chombo’s ministry stuttered when confronted with. A white elephant that has become a reminder of the state of sport in Zimbabwe clearly seeks redemption.
Officials say at least $2 million is needed for repairs, but with the state it is, $5 million will be a reasonable budget.
Were Mutola to visit Zimbabwe today her heart would bleed perhaps not much for swimming, but for what Zimbabwean sports facilities used to be.
The employee sums it all up thus: “A child born in 1995 never had a chance to swim in this complex or to see an athlete here. That child might have moved on to soccer. At least Rufaro is still functional.”
And the headlines today on the complex have nothing to do with the aquatics: “All is set for the Musicians’ Widows Association gala to be held at the Chitungwiza Aquatic Complex on Saturday or The Rebels as Extra Kwazvose + Dembo Brothers@Aquatic Complex . . . or Dancehall clash at Aquatic Complex . Shame!
Former vice chairman of the Sports and Recreation Commission (SRC) from 1992-1996 Muchadeyi Masunda said in an emailed response to questions from NewsDay Sport:
It is indeed a crying shame that the Chitungwiza Aquatic Complex, which was a world-class facility in 1995 when Zimbabwe had the privilege of hosting the All-Africa Games, has now become the proverbial white elephant. The facilities are now not only an eyesore, but are also used for a variety of activities which are not remotely connected with any aquatic sporting discipline.
We are all to blame, albeit in varying degrees of culpability.
The main culprit has to be the now late Witness Mangwende who was the Minister of Education & Culture at the material time and functionally responsible, from an Audit & Exchequer perspective, for the proper utilisation of the funds which were allocated from the fiscus towards the construction of the project.
“In spite of the sage advice that Mangwende received from the Sport & Recreation Commission (SRC), of which I was the Vice Chairman, he rode roughshod over all dissenting voices and convinced his colleagues in government that the most ideal location for the aquatic complex for the All Africa Games was Chitungwiza.
“As there was neither rhyme nor reason for him to have arrived at that decision, the only inescapable conclusion that the mythical reasonable commuter on the Chitungwiza ET was that he was on a vote-catching frolic of his own since he was the incumbent MP for Zengeza and he probably wanted to leave a legacy of sorts.
The then Commissioners on the SRC must shoulder a portion of the blame for not having collectively and steadfastly opposed Mangwende’s machinations which were doomed to fail as there was no evidence to suggest that:
The residents of Chitungwiza were ever consulted on whether or not they needed such exotic aquatic facilities;
lAquatic disciplines were being seriously pursued in any of the schools in Chitungwiza.
I propose the way forward, there are either of the following two options:
fill up the holes for the aquatic facilities in order to change the usage of the entire complex and make it more user-friendly for the ardent and faithful followers of iconic individuals like Oliver Mtukudzi and Emmanuel Makandiwa;
lmake it worthwhile for the newly-established Kirsty Coventry Aquatic Foundation to work in close conjunction with the relevant government Ministries
(Sports, Arts & Culture and Local Government, Public Works & National Housing), the International Swimming Federation/IOC/ZOC/SRC with a view to restoring the facilities to their pristine condition in the cheerful hope that our country can start producing more world class swimmers like Kirsty Coventry and John Keyter, who, by the way, held the World Record for 100 metres butterfly during the late 1960s and early 1970s.