As Nelson Mandela once said: “Sport has the power to change the world… It has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does. It speaks to youth in a language they understand. Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than a government in breaking down racial barriers.”
The date 10th February 2003 holds very little significance to most people. It was the date of the second match of the ICC Cricket World Cup between Zimbabwe and Namibia at Harare.
Even in cricketing terms it is hardly the most significant of occasions.
The match itself was nothing extraordinary, nothing exciting, nothing to remember. It was the actions of two individuals off the pitch that defined that day.
Zimbabwe is a complex country and one that has been torn apart by the atrocities committed by the Robert Mugabe regime. A horrendous abuse of human rights and consistent corruption have been committed by a government that has ruled over Zimbabwe for 33 years. In 2002, Zimbabwe was excluded from the Commonwealth due to “reckless farm seizures and blatant election tampering”, in which farmers were forcibly and violently removed from their land with no compensation. In some cases there was loss of life.
On the 10th February 2003, two men risked their lives to stand up for people who were given no voices and who were being oppressed. Andy Flower and Henry Olonga spoke out against the atrocities being committed by Robert Mugabe’s government.
The idea to speak out began with Andy Flower who had been shown the devastation that had been caused to his country by former team mate Nigel Huff, who told Flower: “You guys have a moral obligation not to go about business as usual during the 2003 World Cup because this country is not operating in a healthy manner and you have a moral obligation to tell the world.”
Flower explained it was this that caused him to question the country he lived in. As soon as he had spoken to Huff and had seen the destruction that had been caused, he knew he had to make a stand. About the same time as his visit to the farmland, he saw a small article in the newspaper which made him reflect further on what he had to do. The article related to an MP that had been murdered; in Flower’s own words he expressed, “What sort of country are we living in where the arrest and torture of an MP is not huge news, that stops people in their tracks. That it is something that is read and almost accepted”.
Flower approached Olonga shortly after to join him and help decide the next step of action. They decided that just the two of them should make the stand, not wanting to bring an end to the international careers of some of their younger team mates. Additionally they believed that “one white Zimbabwean and one black Zimbabwean working together gave it a really nice balance”.
On the day of Zimbabwe’s first match of the tournament, the two men walked out onto the pitch for the national anthems wearing black armbands. The statement issued that day explains why: “In all the circumstances, we have decided that we will each wear a black armband for the duration of the World Cup. In doing so we are mourning the death of democracy in our beloved Zimbabwe. In doing so we are making a silent plea to those responsible to stop the abuse of human rights in Zimbabwe. In doing so, we pray that our small action may restore sanity and dignity to our Nation.”
Olonga believed that to continue in the World Cup “would be condoning the grotesque human rights violations that have been perpetrated – and continue to be perpetrated – against my fellow countrymen”.
It takes a brave man to stand up for what he believes in, but it takes an even braver man to do so under those circumstances. The consequence of such actions would not be something as simple as a slap on the wrist or a fine or a suspension. In a country full of corruption the penalty often paid is that of your life, made to look like an accident. A car crash, a robbery gone wrong. It takes two incredibly brave men to put their lives on the line to give people a voice. To tell the world that all is not right.
A warrant was issued for the arrest of both players on the grounds of treason which carries the punishment of the death penalty in Zimbabwe. Both retired from international cricket and fled the country immediately. Olonga left behind his father and his fiancé, both leaving behind the country of their birth. Whilst Olonga has since returned to the country, Flower has not, as of yet, set foot in Zimbabwe again. That is the price they paid for standing up for what they believe in.
Sometimes sportsmen can be heroes.
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