STUDENT ATHLETES: the silent victims of the COVID 19 pandemic

Fitzgerald Munyoro

The alarm rings around 4.30 am.

Gradually, the pitch black of the night surrenders its dominance to the inevitability of the new day.

Josiah Borerwe (18) laces up his discolored white Nike trainers. The sneakers were dove white just 11 months ago when he received them as a present from his father for captaining his school’s rugby 7s team to a tournament victory.

He matches the weary shoes with a two-year-old navy blue high school tracksuit.

Unlike the pair of sneakers, the tracksuit is still in pristine condition: How can it not be when schools were forced to close before the sports season barely kicked off?

From there, the 18-year-old Upper 6 scholar puts his 162 pound, 1,7 metre frame to the ultimate test.

He subjects himself to a “comrade’s marathon-esque” fitness run that takes him from his parent’s home in the leafy suburb of Greenside, Mutare to the 22 kilometer peg turn off to Bocha, Marange which off shots from the Mutare-Masvingo highway.

In undertaking this perilous course, Borerwe treads in dangerous waters. He has to evade robbers lurking for vulnerable loners in the reclusive low density area of Greenside.

This is coupled with fact that he has to avoid various law enforcement agencies and stations who are on the lookout for those found out doors during the current lockdown curfew which is active from 10 pm-5 am.

On several occasions he has not been so lucky in avoiding soldiers and cops. As an insurance policy he stashes a $5 dollar United States dollar note in the interior of his white ankle socks.

In a society diseased with underhand dealings, this will give him immunity against either arrest or detention from law enforcement agencies that he might encounter.

For 15–25 kilometers a day, 3 days a week, this was Josiah Borerwe’s life during the height of the Covid 19 lockdown. The sole reason why this young man put himself through grueling wear and tear is to keep his dream of playing professional rugby alive.

Sadly, this dream has been for greater part of the past 18 months jeopardized by the emergence of an unanticipated COVID-19 virus as a global pandemic.

In the period from 2020 to 2022, the highly contagious virus has forced a rethink of nearly all of humanity’s largely gregarious lifestyle and behavioral patterns.

In a bid to subdue COVID 19’s rapid spread, state leaders acting on the advice of medical experts enforced arrthymic lock downs that have led to a unique working and societal patterns.

In Zimbabwe, the local education sector has also been shook by the global tide of Covid 19 and the sudden and meteoric death toll. Between January and July 2021 alone, the death toll rose from 483 to 3532 meaning that approximately 500 people lost their lives on a monthly basis.

Minister of Information and Broadcasting Services Monica Mutsvangwa announcing government lockdowns

The effects are evidently clear within the education sector as in the 2020–2021 period, a bizarre and erratic educational calendar has seen learners spent close to 1 year away from any reincarnation of a classroom, let alone a formal school set-up.

As a reaction to this challenge the government in August of last year took the risky but necessary step to open schools primarily for exam classes and then for the rest of the learning grades.

The discovery of a new Covid 19 strain called the Omicron Variant has further curtailed the learning environment. The government has once again failed to kickstart the academic calendar for 2022 with only those finishing of exams being allowed to resume.

 In earnest, this move to try and resuscitate whatever remains of academic year is commendable.

However, some opinion leaders within the sports and education fraternity have indicated that the government’s educational resumption plan is largely pirate-eyed as no significant measures to either address, consider or accommodate learners who are athletically gifted or operating on sporting scholarships were put in place.

A closer investigation will reveal that some form of credibility lies within this criticism. In the 2021 national budget, the ministry of sports, arts and recreation was allocated ZWL $3.4 billion, falling far short of the proposed ZWL $22 billion, a damning indication of where the said ministry lies on the government’s priority list.

Yet a slight peek into history will also show that in the absence of viable academies there is an umbilical cord that binds the progression of national professional sports leagues and an effective high school sports curriculum.

Over the years, sports oriented high schools have played an instrumental part in the creation of some the finest sporting talents that the country has ever seen.

Of note is the Moses Chunga coached Dynamos 2001/2002/2003 squad who were fondly known as ‘KidzNet’ as a huge chunk of the squad were all learners at Churchill Boys High School

The famed Dynamos Kidznet team which was largely made up of scholars from Churchiil Boys High School

The team which was largely made up of boys still undergoing puberty would go on to produce household names such as Norman Maroto, Cephas Chimedza and Leo Kurauzvione to name but a few.

The majority of the youth project went on to have successful football careers, both at club and national level.

Moreso, the story of the ushering in of black players into the Zimbabwean cricket cannot be told without mentioning the pivotal part played by high schools.

Between 2000 and 2002, Zimbabwean cricket was left in shambles following the falling out between white players and the government over the land grab issue which resulted in a number of players being banished from donning the national colours.

Schools such as Churchill High School, Prince Edward Boys High School and Lord Malvern were important in providing exciting and ready prospects such as Tatenda Taibu, Douglas Hondo, Prosper Utseya and Hamilton Masakadza.

These where some of the boys who became men overnight and helped steady the shaking Zimbabwean cricket ship at the time.

Hamilton Masakadza scored his maiden first class century when he was still a pupil at Churchill Boys High School

The symbiotic relationship has continued to this day, national pace bowlers Tendai Chatara and Donald Tiripano are part of the Dangamvura High School alumni who have made waves at international level.

Former British Boxing champion Derek Chisora, Rugby World Cup winner Tendai Mtawarira, China based striker Nyasha Mushekwi, national rugby sensation Ngoni Chibuwe and Olympic sprinter Ngonidzashe Makusha make up some of the sporting star dust that has glittered on the global stage and are products of the Zimbabwean high school sporting system.

Josiah borerwe(pictured) says the Covid 19 pandemic jeopardized his ambition of representing Zimbabwean national rugby team; the Sables

Case in point is the aforementioned Borerwe, who had earmarked 2020/2021 as his breakout season. The young winger’s budding career had been on a meteoric rise since 2017.

After having impressed and captained the Hillcrest College 7s team to an unbeaten season in 2018 and broken into the coveted first team in 2019, the ‘wolverine-framed’ teenager had set his sights on breaking into the Zimbabwe rugby national team who are popularly known as the Sables.

His exploits so far have seen him being awarded a sports scholarship at Prince Edward High School and put him in contention to represent the Zimbabwe under 20 rugby XVs.

However, he says that despite the promising start his infant career has made, the prevalence of COVID-19 has greatly impeded his development.

“The global outbreak of covid-19 has led to governments and local authorities implementing nationwide lockdowns. With no group training sessions allowed, cancelled matches and inability to work and the closure of eating and fitness establishments, I have experienced disruption to my daily life.”

“Firstly, all my events at all levels, from school and club to large events such as the 2020 schoolboy rugby season and the 2021 season were scrapped due to Covid.”

“This has resulted in organized training sessions being deemed nonessential which forced me as a rugby player to reduce my training volume drastically. For example, I was supposed to travel for Zimbabwe trials and I was not allowed because intercity traveling was not allowed by the government.”

“Additionally this has made it hard for me to apply for a scholarship outside Zimbabwe because there is no evidence of rugby games and I cannot draw up a game situation profile and am only hoping that next year I will have a rugby season.” said Borerwe.

His story seems to be a recurring theme that many actors involved in school and youth sports development resonate with.

Loice Sharon Chandiwana, a tennis mentor/scout at Pro-hybrids Tennis Academy in Harare is one of those who lament the closure of schools sports due to Covid 19. She says due to the lockdown, most of the schools that allowed her to use their sporting facilities to train her prospects were closed.

“Tennis used to be one of Zimbabwe’s top sports and our academy has been scouting learners from schools around who have shown interest and potential. We have network synergies with other academies from around the continent and our goal is to expose our bright prospects to high level tennis and in the process improve their quality and make them globally competitive.”

“With the coming of COVID 19, I lost track and contact with some of my trainees. This has really set us back both as an academy and as a country. As things stand I cannot ascertain their fitness levels and due to scarcity of tennis facilities in Zimbabwe, I’m sure their quality levels have dropped.” said Chandiwana.

These sentiments were exclamated by Progressive Teacher’s Union of Zimbabwe (PTUZ) president Dr Takavafira Zhou who says the government short changed many sports-oriented schools by using a non-consultative approach in restoration of the education sector during the Covid 19 pandemic period.

Dr Takavira Zhou

He said that teachers and those operating at grassroots levels within the sector should have been allowed to give input into ensuring that a more holistic solution could have been provided.

“It’s even worse than erratic and inconsistent (the education sector during Covid 19) with a Minister and education officials peddling falsehoods and far detached from the situation in schools.”

“They should have engaged teachers rather than specializing in educational vandalism through a commandist approach to challenges faced. There was nothing done for sports oriented schools.”

“We simply adopted a one size fits all approach. More so, the top leadership lacks taxonomy and ignored the professional advice we offered.” said Zhou.

Efforts to seek answers to the questions raised by Zhou fell on deaf ears as phone calls, texts and Whatsapp messages sent to the Ministry of Youth, Arts, Sports and Recreation, the Sports Recreation Commission and the Ministry of Primary and Secondary Education were either ignored or unanswered.

SPORTS POST COVID 19

Heritage private school headmaster Crispen Mhike who previously coached rugby at Hillcrest College for close to two decades said that schools are the fountain from which sporting clubs and penultimately, national teams draw from.

He added that the year long hiatus from sporting activities within schools will put the country in sporting purgatory as chances are high that Zimbabwe may produce half-baked and substandard sporting products who will fail to measure up against global standards.

“Due to the lockdowns and such most of the athletes were idle for long periods of time. As a result, their fitness and skills levels have to a larger extent diminished. Also the team mentality has been destroyed as they are now functioning more as individuals.”

Former rugby coach Chrispen Mhike believes they were both negatives and positives to be reflected upon during the Covid 19 lockdown era

“Rugby has always been a progression sport from under 14 level to under 17 level through Craven week scrimmages, this progresses to the selection for the junior sables.”

“Most players are used to that ladder, we have gone two years without playing sevens rugby and two seasons without playing craven week which means that the normal ladder has been disrupted. So I would think that in the near future this affects us and will reflect badly at national level.”

“The key lessons that we need to be more innovative and think outside the box and do things differently. Tradition has failed us and I also think a whole revamp of our medical procedures are in order because Covid 19 is going to be with us for a very long time. There is also need to expand the player base and ensure a wider selection beyond the confines of schools.”

The need for innovation is a sentiment shared by Zhou, the PTUZ president. He surmises that a rethink and revamp of teaching methodologies in the education sector is imperative.

Zhou proposed that Information Communication Technology(ICT) based solutions should be at the fulcrum of school operations in future.

“COVID 19 period has shown that there is need for a paradigm shift in approach to teaching methodology so that we embrace ICT. There is also an urgent need to close the technological gap in schools so that we provide students with the same diet of learning in whatever circumstances.”

“The radio and television efficacy was questionable in a country where 85% of pupils had no radio or television frequencies.”

A research paper compiled by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs that looked at the impact of COVID 19 on sport, physical activity and well-being also passed a recommendation that responsible authorities must take measures to support participation in sporting organizations particularly for youth sport.

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