FOR those fortunate enough to reach the zenith of professional sport, tales of giant hurdles and major setbacks — more often than not — form the script of the success stories.
By Enock Muchinjo
Of course, the obstacles vary from one to another — other hindrances far greater than others — and indeed many successful sportsmen on the planet will have different stories to tell about how they were able to overcome theirs.
Perhaps one could argue that there are no larger challenges than those that get to the heart of a sportsman’s emotions and psychological well-being — a huge factor in any athlete’s capacity to perform at their very best.
Professional sport, though, is no place for the weak: mental toughness is a prerequisite, and many young talented sportsmen fall by the wayside after failing this test.
The same misfortune could have befallen Tatenda Taibu, who once told me, from his personal experience as a black teenage newcomer to Zimbabwe’s cricket team, about how the dressing-room can be a very tough and hostile place if a vast majority in there — or powerful clique — believe you should not be there.
But because he had a good head on his shoulders in addition to his on-field talents, Taibu was able to gradually warm hearts and gain respect across the board — mature beyond his age to be installed the youngest Test captain in history, and growing to become one of his country’s most recognised cricket figures.
Like Taibu, Knowledge Musona was another special find from Zimbabwe who would not have reached his destiny were it not for the extraordinary willpower to man up and adapt quickly — a young boy plucked from a modest upbringing and suddenly thrust in a world totally different to his.
Arriving at glamorous South African club Kaizer Chiefs as a mere 18-year-old in 2009, hitherto unknown in his own country, Musona could have also suffered the cultural shock of an entirely different environment, or, even worse, swallowed up by the bright lights of Johannesburg as many were and never to become what he has turned up to be today — ever-reliable talisman and captain of Zimbabwe’s football team.
Around the turn of the millennium, Anderlecht, the most successful club in the Belgian league’s history, was a regular feature in the Uefa Champions League.
Musona was a little boy then, but probably older enough to watch live broadcasts of the Champions League, which ZBC also regularly beamed.
He might have come across the name Anderlecht those years, which would have brought back a flood of memories when he signed for the record Belgian champions last weekend following a splendid season with KV Oostende.
Indeed, the emotional load and weight of professional expectations have robbed us of numerous fine young sporting talent. You only have to reserve special praise for those that managed to defy the insurmountable odds of being culturally different in certain historic sporting establishment — sometimes being subjected to undue scrutiny —but then coming out of it as good as, if not better than, them all.
Imagine how it would have been for Richard Tsimba to play rugby in Zimbabwe in the early 1980s, a world-class rugby player already, but had to prove every time he stepped on a rugby field that what he wanted was not special treatment, but equal opportunities.
And then imagine, too, how it would have been for Tsimba to go to the inaugural Rugby World Cup in 1987 as the only black player in the entire tournament — 16 teams and some 350 odd players, and he was the only unique one.
Astoundingly, Tsimba went to that 87 World Cup already with a reputation, a kind of reputation that can easily weigh down heavily on any sportsmen in those situations — but a reputation Tsimba abundantly lived up to with a five-star show in the heart-breaking 21-20 defeat to Romania, one of the best individual performances of the Rugby World Cup.
It opened the eyes of the sporting world to the ills of racial discrimination.
Once hurdles have been removed, and any sportsman is now able to compete at the same level as everybody, there comes a time when one cannot be ignored anymore as was the case with the recent appointment of Siyamthanda Kolisi as the first black person to captain the Springbok at Test rugby level.
Like Tsimba, a man like Kolisi has had to shake off a tag to gain respect in the midst of spirited resistance.
Richard Tsimba was a lone player of colour for Zimbabwe in 1987, yet a very good player, by far the best against Romania.
Kolisi is also a great player and team-man, a top-quality flank who has established himself as a solid performer over the last few seasons.
There will not be too many people, the unrepentant hardliners aside, who will doubt that — in the absence of both Eben Etzebeth and Warren Whitely — that the Stormers skipper can also lead the Bok side with quiet dignity, authority and the much-desired results.
It is a transformation of sorts for South African rugby: that Kolisi, of humble beginnings in a township called Zwide in Port Elizabeth, can go on to captain the Boks, once seen as an extension and symbol of apartheid racial supremacy.
What Kolisi has done — like Taibu, Musona and Tsimba did in their own country, in their own unique circumstances — is showing he does not require any favours, just the same opportunities and a level playing field to be the best he can.