Opinions & Features July 23, 2021 at 10:00 am

What you need to know about the first Black Zimbabwean swimmer at the Olympics

Nii Ntreh July 23, 2021 at 10:00 am

July 23, 2021 at 10:00 am | Opinions & Features

Donata Katai won African youth titles and shattered youth records previously held by two-time Olympic winner Kirsty Coventry, Zimbabwe's and Africa's most decorated Olympian. Image via Africanews

Donata Katai and Kirsty Coventry, two Zimbabwean women, are creating waves on the continent. While Katai, who is seventeen years old, prepares for the Olympics, Coventry, a former Olympic swimmer, has been chosen as a full member of the International Olympic Committee.

Despite the fact that Coventry has previously represented Zimbabwe, this is the first time the southern African nation has sent a Black swimmer to the Olympics. 

Katai won African youth titles and shattered youth records previously held by two-time Olympic winner Coventry, Zimbabwe’s and Africa’s most decorated Olympian.

Katai’s record-setting had been coming, having received two Gold medals for the 100m and 50m Backstroke as well as a Bronze medal for the 200m Backstroke, at the South African Junior Swimming Championships.

Katai was born in 2004 in Harare. She is currently a student at Gateway High School, a high-end institution in Zimbabwe.

Analysts believe Tokyo is too soon for the teenager to follow in the footsteps of Coventry and step upon the Olympic podium. Katai, on the other hand, represents a more significant breakthrough for Zimbabwe for the time being.

But the young woman seems to recognize this. Talking to the news outlet ABC, Katai said: “There’s a lot of people of color that take part in the sport [Zimbabwe]. I feel like we swim in very different environments because in America there are not many people of color that swim. In Zimbabwe, the majority of people that swim at the moment are people of color”.

Zimbabwe is 99 percent Black, and a Black swimmer had not represented the country in the Olympics until 2021. This has prompted a debate over why Black swimmers are underrepresented in the sport. In the past, this has been the situation in southern Africa, where the most successful swimmers, such as Coventry and South Africans Chad le Clos and Cameron van de Burgh, have all been white. It’s possible that it’s more pronounced because they are from majority-Black countries.

Katai has been swimming competitively since she was six years old when she discovered she was rather talented. Her skill attracted the eye of some of the country’s best instructors when she was just eight years old, and she’s been followed ever since. Katai is not from a working-class family or an underprivileged family. Kathy Lobb, her current coach, highlighted that her family is solidly middle-class.

At the 2019 African Junior Championships in Tunisia, Katai won gold medals in the 50-meter and 100-meter backstroke events. In the same year, she broke Coventry’s long-standing national youth record in the 100-meter backstroke. 

At the Tokyo Olympics, she’ll compete in this event. Katai like the Coventry comparison out of all the others. Coventry also swam at her first Olympics in 2000 at the age of 17. She didn’t win a medal that year, but four years later she came back to win gold, silver, and bronze, kicking off Africa’s record-setting haul.

Presently, Coventry has been elected to serve as a full member of the IOC. She previously served as a member of the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) Athletes Commission since 2013 and a member of its Executive Board since 2018. Coventry’s status was formally decided on by the organization at an IOC session on July 17th. Following the vote, Zimbabwe’s delegate and current chair of the IOC Athlete’s Commission was given an official change of status inside the organization. She was formerly classified as an active athlete, but she will now be classified as an “Independent Individual IOC Member.” She will spend an eight-year term as a member of the IOC. She will remain a member of the Athletes’ Commission until the end of the 2020 Olympic Games.

Coventry will now be part of the decision-making body for the Games. Coventry will represent the IOC in her native country of Zimbabwe as well as across the world, but she will not be a national representative at the IOC. Rather, each IOC member is required to always represent the organization’s best interests.

According to the World Bank estimate, Zimbabwe had a Gini index of 50.3 in 2019. The country is about halfway between complete equality and a situation in which all of the country’s wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few. While Katai’s tale gives Zimbabwe’s Black people hope, the ambition of competing in the Olympics may still be out of reach for young people from lower-income households. 

While Zimbabweans and the rest of Africa cheer Katai on, the government must also provide hope and support to other young people with similar ambitions.

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