There is a huge, terrible new 'crisis' in Zimbabwe that is causing much public gnashing of teeth and weeping and wailing. It threatened to eclipse this week's Harare constitutional conference. It diverted media and public attention away from the sexscapades of the randy prime minister. What new calamity has befallen hapless Zimbabwe? The national soccer team lost a match in Angola under what are widely considered to be disgraceful circumstances, meaning they are out of competition for the 2013 African Cup of Nations. As a result there were brief fears of a soccer insurrection in parts of the country last week. This came just a few days after a lengthy corruption investigation of officials of the Zimbabwe Football Association (ZIFA) and many prominent players. Several big sports-linked personalities have been banned from football for life for throwing games in foreign lands for money. What is the fundamental problem?
At least one big part of the problem is sports that is not linked to sportsmanship.
Soccer glory is ultimately about which team scores more goals than the other. But on the way to a player or a team earning fame and fortune for scoring more goals than others, one would hope to see displays of all the broader 'winning values' that sport is supposed to encapsulate.
Interest in soccer is deep and all-season, but matches are relatively infrequent. Players and teams who become icons often do so for many more reasons than just their goal-scoring record, important as that obviously is. How they conduct themselves off the soccer pitch is part of whether a player or team becomes legendary, heroic or not.
What is sport about after all? Many people are almost fanatical in their support of one or another player/ team because of what they are perceived to symbolize about other areas of life.
For example, a person who overcomes great odds to reach the top of their sports is considered a hero not just because of the achievements on the sports field. Part of the heroic image will be from the many years of disciplined practice, the perseverance, the commitment and self-sacrifice. These are qualities that are valued and admired in life in general, although they are practiced in a particularly intense way in sports. The wider application of the best values of sportsmanship is one reason that sports starts and teams who exemplify them earn the adulation of the public, over and above the number of games and championships they win.
Similarly, a sports star who may have won many games but is found out to be a child molester or wife abuser, for example, is generally denied the accolade of being an overall 'winner' and example of success. That is because those practices are widely seen to be the antithesis of good sportsmanship in life in general.
In the just concluded case of ZIFA corruption, it was found that football players, officials and journalists accompanying them colluded in a conspiracy to deliberately lose matches in exchange for payment from betting syndicates. In at least one such case they falsely posed as the Zimbabwe national football team. There has understandably been particularly strong public revulsion to this shocking case of greed, lack of pride and shame, and betrayal of country. It is a stunning example of bad sportsmanship by particularly privileged sportspeople.
But look at the societal environment in which these people operate. How much value is placed on good sportsmanship in Zimbabwe in general, not just in sports? Could the ZIFA-related people involved in this corruption be simply guilty of following bad examples of getting ahead in life that they see all around them?
In the political sphere, ‘winning’ elections by intimidation and brutality has become quite endemic to Zimbabwean politics across the board. None of the politicians who occupy their offices as a result of deeply tainted electoral processes express the least bit of embarrassment about being the beneficiaries of this open kind of corruption. As things stand today, the most powerful politicians in the country could not really speak in judgement of the corrupt, nation-betraying ZIFA football cheaters because they are no better.
The state of the top levels of the religious establishment in Zimbabwe provides many high profile examples of ‘leaders’ who seem primarily interested in fleecing their flock to live expensive lifestyles. The get-rich-quick-without-working-for-it mentality infects religion very bit as much as politics or any other sphere.
In the business realm, the ‘stars’ most often featured in the media and admired by the public are not primarily known for the value they have added to their companies or the economy, but for their boastful flaunting of their toys. It is no longer unusual to read of a ‘business tycoon’ who has just imported his umpteenth luxury car and wants the public to know about it, only to then read the next week that he is deep in debt and cannot pay his workers.
Some people may mutter under their breath, but the general impression is that rogues who have ‘won’ in these dubious ways are to be admired. The overall message is that the only thing that matters is the score, not how well and fairly the game is played (good sportsmanship) to achieve that score.
Sportsmanship and professionalism don’t matter because achieving success by them is considered too hard compared to the many short-cuts that there are many examples of the most prominent members of society having taken to achieve their status having taken. Why spend years working at being good at a craft, business or sports when the society is replete with examples of people who appear to have ‘won’ by cheating, often with no costs to be paid?
Is it possible to have a winning sports team in a society where there is no longer a culture of and respect for the ethic of good sportsmanship? Is it possible to have successful sports without the value of good sportsmanship?
To find the real roots of the ZIFA soccer corruption scandal, it may be necessary to dig deeper than just asking what is wrong with the running of the game. Perhaps the answers will only be found when conditions are ripe for people to be willing to get to grips with some of the things that are deeply wrong with Zimbabwe as a society.
The Zimbabwe Review