Acts of courage

Print edition : March 14, 2003


SHANE WARNE'S dramatic exit from the World Cup overshadowed one of the most courageous acts of protest seen in the sporting arena for a long time. In Zimbabwe's opening match against Namibia on February 10, Andy Flower and Henry Olonga protested the oppressive regime of Robert Mugabe by wearing black armbands during the game to condemn the "death of democracy" in their country. Despite seriously risking their careers, Flower and Olonga continued their campaign by wearing black wristbands in Zimbabwe's game against India. The Zimbabwe Cricket Union (ZCU), whose patron is Mugabe, reported the two to the International Cricket Council (ICC) for "bringing the game into disrepute". However, the ICC chose not to take any disciplinary action against the players. It has also been reported that Flower and Olonga have been grilled by the ZCU for their actions.

In an increasingly commercialised cricket world, Flower, Zimbawe's greatest cricketer, and Olonga, its first black Test player, brought back fleeting memories of a lost era of politically conscious sports persons - of Muhammad Ali protesting the Vietnam War and racial segregation in the U.S., of Tommie Smith's and John Carlos' black power salute in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics and of anti-apartheid sporting boycotts, including the forfeiture of the 1974 Davis Cup final by India to South Africa. It is hard to imagine the courage it must have taken to openly criticise a government that routinely uses violent methods against dissenters.

In a strongly worded attack, the two stated: "We cannot in good conscience take to the field and ignore the fact that millions of our compatriots are starving, unemployed and oppressed... We are aware that people have been murdered, raped, beaten and had their homes destroyed because of their beliefs and that many have not been prosecuted... It is impossible to ignore what is happening in Zimbabwe. Although we are just professional cricketers, we do have a conscience and feelings." Olonga is already feeling the effects of his protest. Despite being one of Zimbabwe's frontline bowlers, he was dubiously dropped for games against India and Australia. He has also been suspended by his local club Takashinga. The Melbourne newspaper, The Age, has reported that Flower is close to securing a deal that will see him playing domestic cricket in Australia, indicating that a career move may be on the cards.

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