ONE of the first gains for an independent Zimbabwe on the sporting field came a few months after the country had attained its freedom when the women’s hockey national team won a gold medal at the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, Russia.
Russia then was under the Soviet Union.
Having been invited at the last minute to the world’s biggest multi-sporting event to fill the gaps left by the countries which had boycotted the event because of the Cold War, the Zimbabwean girls pulled off an upset.
In a six team tournament, Zimbabwe then coached by Anthea Stewart and captained by Ann Grant won three matches, drew the other two to finish on top of the round robin competition to bag the gold medal.
Their opponents were Czechoslovakia, India, Austria, Poland and the Soviet Union. Zimbabwe defeated Poland 4-0, drew 2-2 with Czechoslovakia, won 2-0 over the Soviet Union, drew 1-1 with India and trounced Austria 4-1 to claim the country’s first ever gold medal.
It was the first time that women’s field hockey had been played at the Olympics and for Zimbabwe it marked a return to the Olympics after being excluded from the 1968, 1972 and 1976 Games for political reasons when the country was still known as Rhodesia.
What made Zimbabwe’s achievements in Moscow even more remarkable was that the girls had never played on artificial turf before and had never competed as a national team overseas. INDEPENDENCE brought all those opportunities. Zimbabwe did not win another Olympic gold medal until swimmer Kirsty Coventry came out tops in Athens, Greece in 2004. As Zimbabwe prepares to celebrate 35 years of independence, we tracked down one of the Golden Girls Patricia Buckle (Patricia McKillop in 1980) to take us through that astonishing accomplishment in 1980.
A midfielder who specialised in taking short corners and penalty flicks, Buckle finished as the joint top goal scorer in Moscow with six goals, the same as Natella Krasnokiva of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republic.
Buckle, who turned out for Bulawayo Athletic Club was one of the four Bulawayo girls in the team together with Sarah English of Queens Sports Club, Brenda Philips from Old Miltonians and Helen Volk of BAC.
She recalls how when the United States of America influenced other countries to withdraw from the 1980 Olympics, because of Soviet Union’s 1979 invasion of Afghanistan leaving only countries aligned to the USSR, an invitation was extended to Zimbabwe. The Zimbabwe Olympic Committee only got the request to participate with just over a month remaining. The invite was for both the men and women’s teams but the ZOC decided to send the women only.
“We had six weeks to assemble a team, we arrived in Russia two weeks before the start of the Olympics, it was the first time to train on the artificial turf. It was the first time that women’s hockey was played at the Olympics so we made our own history. It was such an honour representing our country, we were not paid then, we were just amateurs. We all got our photographs, medals, blazers and newspaper cuttings to remind us. It still feels like a dream standing on that podium, 35 years ago,’’ said Buckle. She describes how huge crowds gathered to meet the team at airports in Harare and Bulawayo when they returned home.
“It was absolutely fantastic, we had lots of people welcoming us at the airport in Harare and Bulawayo,’’ Buckle recalls.
Aged 24 then and now 58-year-old Buckle said it was sad not to get the opportunity to defend their title at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, United States of America since the International Olympic Committee felt that Zimbabwe had won gold because other countries had pulled out.
“We should have been allowed to defend our gold medal at the next Olympics, it was very disappointing not to, it was not our fault that people didn’t take part, we deserved to be at the 1984 Olympics,’’ Buckle said.
She feels that the 1980 team was the best ever national women hockey side because they used to participate in inter-provincial competitions in South Africa where Zimbabweans had a chance to represent the neighbouring country. There were also strong leagues in Bulawayo and Harare with the teams from the two cities playing each other regularly.
Buckle is saddened by the state of hockey in the country and realistically she feels Zimbabwe stood no chance of qualifying for the Olympics anytime soon.
“A lot of talented players have left the country. Hockey has died, I don’t think the sport is big enough to qualify for the Olympics, it is still an amateur sport, we do not have top coaches in the country for our national teams,’’ Buckle pointed out.
She has tried to play her part by coaching junior national teams.
She was the Under-21 women’s team coach for three years, a side that she subsequently led to the Junior World Cup in Canada in 1989. She also mentored boys’ teams in Bulawayo but has not been involved in coaching for a while as she had drifted away to golf, a sport where she has also represented Zimbabwe.
She is the mother of three talented boys who have also gone on to represent the country in various sporting disciplines. Her first born Michael McKillop, born in 1981 captained the Zimbabwe men’s hockey team and also appeared in nine first class cricket matches for Matabeleland.
The second, Sean Williams, born in 1986 captained Zimbabwe at the 2006 Under-19 Cricket World Cup in Sri Lanka. A multi talented sportsman, he also played hockey for Zimbabwe Under-18 and has represented the country at three International Cricket Council World Cups in 2007, 2011 as well as 2015.
The last of the three sibblings Michael Williams, born in 1990 has just like his brothers donned national colours in hockey, played first class cricket for Matabeleland Tuskers but is currently into golf.
Buckle tells of the story of the two stripes used by Zimbabwe at the 1980 Olympics, how the other one was considered to carry more luck than the other one. Zimbabwe won three matches in the blue and white kit while they drew two matches in the green and white.
She said as far as she knows, all members of the Golden Girls are still alive. They used to have a get together in Harare, have not met in a while though but they do keep in touch.
As Zimbabweans celebrate 35 years of independence, we salute the Golden Girls who defied all odds to put the Southern African nation on the lips of the sporting world with their extraordinary display at Moscow 1980.