Amid Covid-19, fears abound on the future of sport in Zim

SPORT in the country has been adversely affected by the prolonged stay of the Covid-19 pandemic with athletes, coaches and the administrators being affected the most as they no longer receive sustainable incomes if they are receiving anything at all.

One discipline that appears to be doing well in the Covid-19 circumstances is the perceived elitist cricket, the first to be cleared by the government following the ban on all sporting activities due to the pandemic in March.

As the pandemic continued ravaging, the government availed ZWL$10 million targeted as a once-off payment to deserving athletes under the Athletes and Arts Relief Fund.

The payments varied from ZWL$2 000 to ZWL$8 000 depending on categories of athletes and if one’ s application was approved.

The biggest sport (in terms of following), football, received their funding for Covid-19 relief from FIFA, with the local Premier Soccer League (PSL) clubs benefiting just over US$5 000 each, a pittance for the clubs to look after their players and prepare for football resumption.

Some clubs have paid allowances with Highlanders Football Club doling out US$100 to each of their players while other clubs have not.

One player from Chicken Inn, who refused to be named, said it’s a struggle out there.

“It’s a struggle. We have started training but how much are we getting paid? To be honest we are still getting salaries that we were getting in June which have been eroded by inflation. Imagine getting paid ZWL$5 000 or ZWL $8 000 what do you do with that kind of money. It’s not even enough for just food and we are still expected to come for training. We have other expenses such as school fees. It has become unbearable. There are some players who have stopped receiving salaries and we did not get the COVID-19 allowances and that has created tension among the boys,” the player said.

Another senior player from a relatively small club Bulawayo Chiefs also painted a grim picture of the whole situation, saying maybe if football resumed things would be better.

“COVID-19 has affected everyone and hit us so hard with little or no progress at all that we are making in our lives. Clubs are trying their best to pay salaries but we are struggling and we don’t know when football will start,” the player said. 

But Zifa has reneged on the idea of the two-weeks tournament under the bio-bubble concept proposed by the Sports and Recreation Commission (SRC) saying the notion is “elitist and expensive” meaning the game will not be returning anytime soon.

So much for the big sports codes that get international funding.

The so-called minority sports have also not been spared the vagaries of Covid-19 pandemic as a tennis coach and sports scientist Thesly Mufunda explains.

“One of the biggest things that hit us was that we had an international tournament that was supposed to start on a Monday of the Saturday that the lockdown was called (in March).  Imagine some players had already travelled into Bulawayo to play the International Tennis Federation (ITF) tournament. It dampened the mood of the players and it meant all plans had to be thrown outside,” Mufunda said.

Mufunda said there was also an Africa Junior Championships competition supposed to be during the Easter Holidays and several tennis players lost out as they eyed the tournament to progress in their rankings and graduate to new-age groups.

“Definitely for coaches and professional players, there was a loss of income in the seven months without action. For professionals who participated in Wimbledon, the prizemoney was shared but to only a few individuals. It means for your amateur pro and for your semi-pro players they had nothing coming their way. So, in general, it drew back everyone who was looking forward to participating,” he said.

Mufunda is a former professional player, who runs Gap Sports at the Bulawayo Athletic Club and says the Covid-19 has had a negative impact on his tennis academy.

“From a coach’s perspective, there was so much loss of income. Up to now, the start is slow. Some parents are sceptical about having lessons (for their kids). Some came back because they were chasing certain targets but those who were not chasing professional or competitive targets are reluctant on coming back. So there has been a drop in clientele and many lessons have moved from group lessons to one-on-one. Clients are opting for one-on-one as opposed to the groups. There is a shift in how we are operating,” Mufunda said.

He added: “It has made the sport more expensive because now you try not to share equipment so you have to have enough to cater for your clients. There has been so much change in the whole game of sports. Looking at the self-sponsoring or parents-sponsored clients some depending on their work and now because of COVID-19, incomes have been reduced, some were laid off. Obviously tennis then doesn’t become a priority. These are some of the things that we are worried about. We have lost players because they can no longer afford to play the sport.”

He is however hopeful that tennis will blossom again post-Covid-19 as people have become positive and accepted the new normal albeit he lamented on the loss of general sponsors who are also trying to get back on their feet.

Squash Rackets Association of Zimbabwe (SRAZ) chairman Lucky Mlilo says like all other sporting disciplines, squash has also felt the pinch as they missed out on a number of local and international tournaments.

“Covid 19 did affect the sport adversely. Some of our coaches and managers were deprived of the incomes they realise from coaching at schools and clubs. Players were also affected as they could not train on the squash courts. Training has resumed at clubs and schools under strict adherence conditions. We cannot host any competitions this year. The situation will be reviewed next year. We hope we can host the traditional local tournaments and participate in the regional and world championships,” 

Mlilo is also optimistic of better squash programme after Covid-19.

Bulawayo-based Taekwondo coach Vusa Ncube also says the year has not been good for him.

“Covid-19 affected a lot of people; someone like myself as a coach. This is my full-time job and up to today since March I still haven’t gone back to work and the one-on-one sessions that I do I don’t get good responses. People are scared of Covid-19 especially ours is a contact sport. I believe other sports codes are back. Imagine if you are to stay the whole year without money and have turned a beggar. It is so stressful and makes some of our athletes end up doubting the future of our sport. I have lost a number of clients. It becomes difficult for someone to come back and start training after the long lay-off. It has killed a lot of things,” Ncube said.

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