Africa’s most decorated Olympian Kirsty Coventry at the International Sports Innovation Conference in November. Image Credit: Clint Egbert/Gulf News

Dubai: It was a crowded lobby of Al Habtoor Grand where Kirsty Coventry — a former world champion swimmer and the most decorated Olympian from Africa — was switching between two roles with equal poise.

If she was exchanging pleasantries with a top notch Emirati sports official at one moment, the owner of seven Olympic medals and her husband Tyrone were busy checking out if their six-month-old daughter was at peace with the nanny the next second.

“She didn’t have a good sleep last night,” says the 36-year-old swimming ace from Zimbabwe, before the new mother switched quickly into the role of the Minister of Sports, Arts and Recreation for her country.

Kirsty with her husband Tyrone and their six-month-old daughter. Image Credit: Gautam Bhattacharyya/Gulf News

There has never been a dull moment for Coventry ever since she was appointed in the role little over a year back by Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa — and she didn’t dispute the suggestion that pursuit of excellence in the pool was certainly an easier job.

Speaking to Gulf News in an exclusive chat on the sidelines of the International Sports Innovation Conference recently — Coventry sounded genuinely happy at being able to convince the world cricket’s governing body to lift the ban on Zimbabwean cricket in October. The International Cricket Council (ICC) had banned the African nation from participating in the ICC events last July for what was deemed as ‘political interference.’

“I would like to thank the ICC chairman, Shashank Manohar, for giving me an opportunity to listen to the blueprint I have in mind. It was a very good meeting which paved the door for our re-entry,” said Coventry, pleased at being able to broker peace between the ICC and Zimbabwe’s cricket body. The country which once boasted the likes of the Flower brothers or Heath Streak will however miss out on a shot at the World T20 in Australia, though they will be able to take part in the Under-19 World Cup in January.

The crisis may have been averted for now, but how does Coventry — a rookie in politics — plan to cope with the ills in their cricketing system like corruption or quota-based selection in the national teams?

Admitting that it’s a tough road ahead, the former world record holder promised there will be no compromise on quality. “I would like to see athletes being recognised as athletes. They are not black or white but athletes as we need to put up the best team for Zimbabwe. It doesn’t matter whether you come from a poor or rich community,” she says in right earnestness.

The advantage with cricket in Zimbabwe, as she sees it, is that since it comes close to what could be their national sport, “there is a system” in place. “There is no problem with funding as the ICC ploughs in enough funds but the federation needs to have a long term plan and show the results.

“I am currently asking all the national federations to challenge themselves — they need to look at themselves closely. It’s one thing to have passion for the sport but you should know how to administer or run it,” said Coventry — who is now busy prioritising the disciplines where the establishment will focus in on future.

In a country starved of sporting stardom, Coventry has been a cult figure of sorts ever since she won the first of her two gold medals in Athens 2004 — which had the then President Robert Mugabe addressing her as “our golden girl.” She was a dominating force in 200 metres backstroke and individual medley for five Olympic Gomes from 2000 in Sydney to Rio 2016 — finishing with seven medals in all — two gold in the 200m backstroke in 2004 and 2008, four silver and a bronze. Coventry also has three long course world titles — 100m, 200m backstroke in 2005 and 200m breaststroke in 2009.

Surely, the journey was not easy as Zimbabwe had no sporting heroes for an young swimmer to model herself after like say US or Australia? “I was very fortunate for my parents were very supportive and kept saying you can do it — they gave me the support for being confident enough to try. My coach Kim Brackin and teammates were pillars of strength as they created the right environment for me to succeed,” Coventry said in all humility.

Looking at the bigger picture for the two disciplines which form the cornerstone of the Olympics movement — it certainly seems that athletics and swimming will no longer be the same in Tokyo 2020 after the exit of Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps.

Asked if such larger-than-life characters will be now rare in her sport, Coventry was in no mood to rue over the retirement of the legends. “See, I was in Doha a few months back and I thought there were some really great young characters for the World Athletics — but yes, they are trying only very few events. If you look at Usain, he was trying the 100, 200 or even the 400m relays, but now athletes are more specific.

“May be, you have to look at this way that sport is growing and hence possibly becoming more specialised. You are unlikely to get a swimmer like Phelps who is swimming the 100 metres, 200m, individual medley or backstroke but we will have to live with it,” she smiled.


Kirsty Coventry

Born: September 16, 1983, Harare, Zimbabwe

Height: 1.73m

Spouse: Tyrone Seward

Parents: Lyn Coventry, Rob Coventry

2000-2016: Five Olympics, most decorated Olympian from Africa with seven medals — two gold, four silver and a bronze. 200m backstroke golds in Athens, Beijing; three long course world titles in 100m, 200 backstroke in 2005 and 200m breaststroke in 2009.

2012: Elected to the International Olympic Committee Athletes’ Commission, serving as an IOC member for eight years.

2018: Appointed Minister of Sports, Arts and Recreation in Zimbabwe.