The Sunday News
A generation of some of the best athletes was robbed of international exposure because of the country’s isolation.
When Zimbabwe attained her Independence a superb field was past its peak and could not benefit to advance its endeavours.
But a great number of them stayed on in the sport and got into technical and administrative roles to serve a sport that earned them jobs and national repute.
Among those in a very competitive group of athletes who could have stormed the world and conquered are Adon Treva whose 46,2 second Chamber of Mines record set in 1972 still stands, Artwell Mandaza whose 20,8 seconds in the half lap event was too good for the mines’ athletes of the past 40 years to break, Dera Magodo, Salatiel Zangure, Clifford and Clifton Mutize, Boniface Magodo and Charles Mafika.
Born on 17 September 1944, Mafika showed his prowess at Usher Institute as a primary school pupil dominating in the sprints.
In an interview with Sunday Leisure, Mafika who was brilliant as a 4x400m relay athlete, 800 and 1500m, said he felt sore that Independence arrived a year after he had hung his spikes at the age of 35.
“There was nothing I could do. At the peak of my career I dreamt of running in a free Zimbabwe where we would be free to compete with athletes from elsewhere in the world. There were so many great athletes and the Chamber of Mines competitions were a big deal as the most outstanding runners would be drafted into teams to go and represent the country in competitions in South Africa.
“Those trips and competitions in places like Free State, Benoni and Witbank were exciting and a real litmus test, but nothing would have beaten us running for our country at the Commonwealth Olympic Games back then. I believe we were good enough to face the world,” said Mafika.
He says his generation would have with ease have won scholarships to study and train abroad.
“We missed out on scholarships because of our exclusion from international sport. I am happy because of Independence, we have been able to see our sons and daughters get scholarships and chances to run abroad and make a living through athletics,” said the former athlete who was among many to be employed by the mines because of their athletics talents.
Mafika was up for consideration in the Mexico (1968) and 1972 Munich Games in the 400 and 800m.
“Perhaps the closest was in 1972 for the Munich Olympics in Germany. But organisers decided on a very lean squad, I stood a good chance in the 800m and 4x400m relay, thereafter the country did not get a chance to participate at the Games until 1980,” said Mafika.
Zimbabwe got to a flying start with the women’s hockey team winning gold and it would take over 20 years before other medals followed. These were in swimming where present Minister of Sport, Kirsty Coventry shone like a beacon, winning a bagful in successive Olympics.
Mafika believes the 400m and the 4x400m had the country’s hopes pinned on them before Independence. He says Mandaza would have run in the 4x400m with selectors spoilt for choice on whom to partner him with as Vuyani Fulunga, the Magodo brothers, Treva and himself were on top of their game.
“The competition was top notch. It was never easy to predict who would prevail in the races,” he said.
Prior to Independence Cyprian Tseriwa had represented the country in the Empire (Commonwealth Games) in 1962 and the pair of Rabson Murombe and Mathias Kanda had run the marathon at the Tokyo, Japan Olympics in 1964.
Mafika said the field events had their own stars who could have benefited with training abroad and competitions. These were Phineas Ajida who for years dominated the long and triple jumps both nationally and in the Chamber of Mines set up.
Another champion jumper was Thomas Chizanga of Mhangura.
A new crop of athletes who had been understudying his generation was on hand to take over after Independence.
He said the young generation had gone through the mill and learnt from the best and deserved its turn to shine and represent the country.
“We saw after Independence the emergence of stars like Tapfumaneyi Jonga, Zephania Ncube, Partson Muderedzi and Charles Gumbura. They were great runners, we were happy to see them come on board and dominate the scene after we had left. But my feeling is that the 1964-1980 had very strong sprints and middle distance great field of runners who lost out on making it big because of the country’s ban from international sport,” said Mafika who after retiring did not turn his back on the sport.
“I am still passionate about athletics. When I retired I started off as a time keeper and eventually rose to chairman of the Matabeleland North Athletics Board,” said Mafika who is now in his 11th year after retirement from Hwange Colliery Limited whom he joined in 1964.
Mafika horned his talent in rural Plumtree’s Thekwane area where as a herdboy he walked long distances to herd cattle and goats, developing natural endurance. When he moved to Usher Institute where he completed his primary education, Mafika’s talents were all evident as he would beat fellow pupils in the sprints at the school.
If there were doubting Thomases about his pedigree, his four years at Thekwane were enough to announce to the world that a champion athlete was in the making.
“I was good in the sport. I was a force to reckon with at Usher Institute and went a gear up at Thekwane. I recall winning the school’s cross country competition and all that time it would appear Wankie people were monitoring me.
“The strongest challenge I had in the 400m was Fukunga and Mbako Hlomani whom I would later run with at Hwange,” said Mafika.
He joined the coalminers in 1963 after he had been spotted at White City Stadium watching an event.
“I was out of school that year and I happened to be watching athletics when I stumbled on Hwange sports officers Des Lawler and Cyprian Ngoma. They had been trekking me since I was at Thekwane,” he said.
Mafika was to be part of the Hwange athletics team for 15 years.
He ran the 400m, 800m, 1 500m and the 4x400m relay.
Mafika remembers traveling to Zambia with the colliery athletics team and Highlanders FC for that country’s first Independence Celebrations and running in a 4x400m relay team which had Fulunga, former Hwange sports officer Prize Ndlovu and the talented James Mwape Sakala who was also a football player and later the coalminers coach.
Years later Mafika would form a formidable relay team with Treva and Alfred Ncube.
He recalls fierce rivalry between the leading mines’ teams, Gaths, Cam and Motor, Shabanie, Mangula, Zisco who all gave Hwange a good run for their money.
At his peak Mafika who turns 76 this September 17, ran the 800m in one minute 53 seconds and the 1 500m in 3 minutes 56 seconds on a cinder track.
“On a better surface, better training, nutrition and equipment, I have no doubt we would have proven to the world that we were good,” said Mafika perhaps bolstered by the fact that Mandaza was at one stage the fastest man on earth though his times were not registered by authorities who cited that he had been assisted by the wind.
Mafika said training and discipline were key at their time.
“We put in a lot of effort on our own. We loved the sport and we ran for nothing unlike now where athletes earn a lot of money.
“We did a lot of road running to build endurance and strength. We lifted weights too but today’s generation is privileged with access to better things and motivation,” said the former Hwange Athletics Club boss.
Mafika is a widower with four grown up children.