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Tseriwa: Rhodesia’s pioneering Olympian



HISTORY, a story about the past and not the past itself, can take the form of a tremendous account, a rolling narrative filled with great personalities and tales of turmoil, failure and triumph.


Each generation adds its own chapters to history, while reinterpreting and finding new things in those chapters already written.

History provides us with a sense of identity. By understanding where we come from, we can better understand who we are. It provides a sense of context for our lives and our existence. It helps us understand the way things are and how we might approach the future.

Further, history teaches us what it means to be human, highlighting the great achievements and disastrous failures of the human race. It also teaches us through example, offering lessons on how we can better organise and manage our societies for the benefit of all.

Frantz Fanon said: “Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfill it, or betray it.”

Rhodesian pioneering Olympian Cyprian Tseriwa discovered and fulfilled his mission in life. He made history and inspired the next generations of athletes during the colonial era, leading to Zimbabwe’s new sports chapter after 1980.

Tseriwa, who lived a quiet life, died on Monday aged 86 at the Avenues Clinic in Harare. He was described as a “pioneer” and “inspiration” by Zimbabwe Olympic Committee president Thabani Gonye.

“Tseriwa was part of a generation of athletes who were a great inspiration to athletes in many generations that followed,” he said.

Tseriwa, a schoolteacher at an Anglican college near Marandellas (Marondera), made his own piece of history as he became the first black athlete to represent Rhodesia in the Rome Olympics in 1960. He competed in the 5 000 metres, 10 000 metres and the marathon.

The “Black Flash”, as he was commonly known, had broken Rhodesia’s three-mile and six-mile records in preparation for the Olympics, with 14m 25 sec, 30 min 16 sec, respectively.

After the Olympics, the trailblazing Tseriwa was hired as an athletics instructor by Wankie Colliery.

His feat opened the way for Mathias Kanda and Robson Mrombe to compete in the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo.

However, after Ian Smith’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence in November 1965, Rhodesian athletes could not compete due to sanctions on the country and a subsequent sporting ban. Rhodesia was banned from the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, 1972 Munich and 1976 Montreal.

After the liberation struggle and the end of Rhodesia, Zimbabwe featured in the 1980 Olympics in Moscow.

Its women’s national field hockey team won a gold medal in a major upset. The squad of 16 women, all white, was assembled less than a month before the Olympics began to help fill the gaps the American-led Olympic boycott had left in the women hockey competition.  

Zimbabwe’s subsequent victory in the round-robin tournament with three wins and two draws was regarded as a huge upset, particularly considering the team’s lack of preparation and experience; it has been called an “irresistible fairytale”.

Won at a time of momentous political turbulence and transition in Zimbabwe, the gold medal was the country’s first Olympic medal of any colour.

After its fairytale victory in 1980, the country won nothing for 24 years. Zimbabwean athletes have won a total of eight medals – three golds, four silvers and one bronze – in two sports.

Seven medals were won by swimmer Kirsty Coventry, current Sports minister, in 2004 and 2008; the remaining medal being the 1980 one.

Professor Ibbo Mandaza, who was related to Tseriwa, said the pioneering Olympian’s story was critical in Zimbabwean history because “different people make different histories about the fate of widely different peoples” in society.

Mandaza, a prominent publisher who was involved in Zimbabwe’s liberation struggle, said history gives us the opportunity to learn from our past mistakes and understand reasons why people may behave the way they do, in this case in relation to Rhodesian society, sport and other facets of life.

The British colony of Southern Rhodesia, later governed by a white settler minority as unilaterally-independent territory, practiced racial segregation in many spheres, including education, healthcare access, property ownership and political participation, as well as land ownership and where to live, among other things.

Though racial segregation tended to exist on a less formal level than in Rhodesia’s neighbour, apartheid South Africa, segregationist policies were pervasive but not always totally enforced.

Sport was fiercely contested terrain, with segregation but not sweeping measures.

Following the exclusion of South Africa from international sporting events due to segregation on the playing field in the late 1960s, the anti-apartheid movement focused on Rhodesia.

Sport in Rhodesia was never sharply segregated by law as in apartheid South Africa, and a strong narrative developed both in Rhodesia and in the international Press that Rhodesian sport was multiracial and should not be punished as South African sport had been.

However, racial discrimination in sport still did take place in Rhodesian sport in less overt ways. The development of sport in majority-ruled Zimbabwe after 1980 bore a strong imprint of its racialisation in colonial Rhodesia.

Vestiges of colonialism are still evident in sport in Zimbabwe 43 years later.

Sport featured prominently in the white settler history of Southern Rhodesia. The personality of Cecil Rhodes was central to the history of white sports in the territory; Rhodes himself was an avid sportsman and several of the earliest pioneers took part in the organisation of early Rhodesian sport.

Sir William Milton, a South African cricket player and sponsor, accompanied Rhodes to Rhodesia and became administrator of Southern Rhodesia.

Soon after the Pioneer Column reached Fort Salisbury in 1890, they erected a racecourse and played cricket in what would later become Cecil Square (Africa Unity Square).

By 1909, there were numerous sports facilities in Salisbury and Bulawayo. Sport was inseparable from white settler identity and contributed to and reflected the social separation of white rulers from black subjects.

In early Rhodesia, as in early white settler societies elsewhere in Africa, the first networks of sporting contacts among white settlers developed through “premodern” leisure sports such as hunting, riding, horse and dog racing, and shooting.

These sports reflected a sense of class consciousness that developed in Britain. Even hunting was a racialised sport.

The diffusion of modern sport in Rhodesia was part of a process of sport globalisation more generally, and tended to follow existing imperial networks such as missionary education, military conquest, trade, the activities of medical personnel, railroads, and, perhaps most importantly, European settlement. Reflecting on why football became the sport of the masses throughout the British Empire while cricket and derivatively rugby had more limited appeal, Guttmann argues football peaked in conjunction with the height of Empire and thus was diffused most rapidly.

Cricket had peaked too early.

In South Africa, rugby was closely allied to Afrikaner domination, and it was consequently discouraged among black South Africans.

Cricket in particular tended to be class-stratified, the sport of the colonial service, their collaborators and allies, and small pockets of well-connected colonial subjects.

Football, on the other hand, allowed professional athletes to play and quickly absorbed the working classes in Britain; those working classes became merchants and functionaries throughout the world.

The divide between cricket and rugby as elite sports on the one hand and football, the sport of the masses, on the other, diffused from metropolitan Britain to the empire, which remains the situation in former British colonies, including Zimbabwe.

Cricket and rugby were the most central components of white settler sport culture.

The two sports promoted imperial ideologies of the power of the British race and of masculinity expressed through sporting prowess.

Through the political efforts of Minton and other early Rhodesian administrators, cricket and rugby governance became highly structured and closely aligned to the settler state.

This is not to say that Rhodesia had no exceptions of black cricket or rugby players at all: the late head of the Zimbabwe Cricket Union Peter Chingoka, for instance, played cricket for St George’s Boys’ School in Salisbury in 1972, the first African to compete.

Modern sport in Rhodesia was about more than just play; it was also about power. Just as sport in white settler societies helped foster a sense of social belonging among whites by instilling a sense of common identity and friendship in an often lonely rural lifestyle, so too did it help to define a social distance between white Rhodesians and the black population.

Sport imported from Europe helped define the social boundary between white settlers and black populations.

When black Africans began learning European sports and becoming quite good at them, more overt and stricter control was required to maintain racial distance through sport.

Black Rhodesian athletes made tremendous progress in sport throughout the 1960s and 1970s in at least some contexts, notwithstanding the persistence of racial discrimination in sport.

Track and field athletics, in particular, held promise for black athletes. But discrimination did exist.

Racial discrimination existed in Rhodesian sport, just as it existed in Rhodesian life more generally, but it was never total and sport remained contested terrain until Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980.

While Tseriwa was a pioneer Olympian, the first recorded integrated athletics competition was in 1958 in Salisbury where the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland athlete and Zambian legend Yotham Muleya set a national record in the three-mile race, coming in second to a Kenyan runner and defeating a white English runner.

Muleya (1940-1959) was a long-distance runner who represented Northern Rhodesia and the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland. His footprint is found in Zambia and Zimbabwe.

Muleya made history when he broke racial barriers and opened a new era in Rhodesian sport after beating the famous  British four-minute-miler Gordon Pirie by 100 yards in a three-mile race in Salisbury in December 1958.

Officials presented Pirie with a plaque to mark his visit, but he brusquely handed it over to Muleya.

African nationalist, educationist, author and journalist Stanlake Samkange said: “Muleya did more for good race relations in under a quarter of an hour than hundreds of twittering interracialists have achieved in the last five years.”

Muleya’s victory was reported in the popular American magazine Sports Illustrated as making “a nice crack in Rhodesia’s grim racial barrier.”

His appearance not only broke the colour bar, but his phenomenal performance led to an educational exchange grant in the United States.

On 16 November 1959, Muleya and, white track star, John Winter, the Southern Rhodesian quarter mile champion, set off on three-month scholarships at the Central Michigan College  from Salisbury Airport.  

However, they died a few days later in a road accident at Mount Pleasant, Michigan.

Muleya was given a state funeral back home. The Zambian government named a road – Yotham Muleya Road – and Yotham Muleya Primary School in Lusaka after him.

Leslie Rainey wrote a book about Muleya titled Runner From the Long Grass and in his book Running Wild, Pirie described Muleya as “a quiet, charming fellow and an excellent runner.”

In 1959, Tseriwa was one of the first two black Rhodesian athletes to represent Matabeleland in an event against Mashonaland; the following year he became the first non-white Rhodesian to win the Rhodesian National Championship, coming first in the three-mile and six-mile races in record times.

In 1960, Tseriwa was the first and only black Rhodesian on the Olympic team of the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland at the Rome Olympics, where he finished 28th and set a new Rhodesian national record.

Lote Ndlovu became the first black Rhodesian to win an international event for Rhodesia when he won the 10 000-metre in a competition in Mozambique. Throughout the 1960s, black Rhodesian athletes won the six-mile and three-mile national championships almost every year.

Black Rhodesian athletes defeated their white counterparts in nearly half of all national championships from 1959 to 1970.

The national athletics teams chosen to tour Malawi and South Africa in the late 1960s were divided equally among black athletes and white athletes, although men did outnumber women.

While these achievements began as exceptions to the rule, a pattern had emerged by the end of the 1960s that was in stark contrast to the rigid segregation in apartheid South African competition.

The late Artwell Mandaza

By the 1970s, black Rhodesian athletes had become world-class competitors. Track and field star Artwell Mandaza held the unofficial world record for the 100-metre sprint at 9.9 seconds and became the Rhodesian Athlete of the Year for 1970.

Mandaza’s fastest official time, 10.2 seconds, was the fastest time ever run by a Rhodesian athlete and eleventh in the world in 1970.

He toured West Germany in 1971, the first Rhodesian athlete to tour continental Europe, and was the only Rhodesian athlete to reach the qualifying mark for the Munich Olympics in the 100 metres.

Bernard Dzoma, selected for Rhodesia’s ill-fated Olympic teams to Mexico City and Munich, was well-decorated, setting Rhodesian records in the 5 000-metre and 10 000-metre races, and winning Rhodesian championships in the three-mile and six-mile races in 1967 and 1968.

The two black Rhodesian track and field stars chosen for the 1964 Tokyo Olympic team, Mrombe and Kanda, also held Rhodesian national records; Mrombe held the record in the six miler and Kanda in the marathon.

The International Amateur Athletic Federation found that Rhodesian track and field was multiracial and did not include racially exclusive clubs or competitions; in addition, the administration of the Rhodesian Amateur Athletic Union was multiracial.

Rhodesian track and field stars had also won impressive victories in the South African Games and other international competitions. Athletics was not the only sport in which black Rhodesian athletes had achieved renown throughout Southern Africa.

Dynamos football legend George Shaya was a finalist for Rhodesian Sportsman of the Year in 1976 and became Rhodesian Soccer Star of the Year five times. In 1969, at age 21, Shaya was selected a member of the Rhodesian World Cup team. Despite the obstacles, this was significant progress.