Kirsty Coventry
Kirsty Coventry is diplomatically silent on the Mugabe issue.
FEW athletes have to walk as fine a line at the Games as Zimbabwean swimmer Kirsty Coventry. Somehow she has to represent her country with pride but without condoning the excesses of the Robert Mugabe regime, which have reduced much of her country to chaos and poverty.

Her ability to walk that line, while maintaining an outstanding competition record, suggests that Coventry, 24, has a future in diplomacy if she so chooses. Despite countless invitations from the international media to speak out against the Mugabe Government during her career, she remains apolitical.

And with good reason. Her parents Rob and Lyn, who run a chemical company in Harare, and her wider family, including sister Lauren, still live in Zimbabwe where they are vulnerable to the ruthless forces of the Government.

However, she has been based in the United States since she was recruited by Auburn University coach Kim Brackin in Alabama six years ago. She completed her degree last year and followed her long-term coach to Austin, Texas, where they planned her Olympic campaign.

Coventry was asked the Mugabe question again after winning the first of three silver medals at Beijing's Water Cube this week. As usual, she preferred to talk about the people of her country rather than its Government.

"Part of the reason that I am still swimming and still motivated is to raise my country's flag high and shine a good positive light on the people back home," Coventry said.

She knows exactly what an inspiration she is to her people, having returned home to a riotous welcome after she won her country's first Olympic gold medal, in the 200m backstroke at the Athens Olympics. Coventry was hailed as a national treasure and greeted at the airport by beating drums, tribal dancers and hundreds of fans waving banners. In the wake of her triumph, many new babies were given her first name, often with the middle name of "Coventry", while others were named "Gold Medal".

Coventry usually goes home once a year, at Christmas, and is never in doubt of the support she has.

"Every time I go down the street, people on the street say good luck to me," she said. "I don't think there are a lot of athletes who have their whole country supporting them."

She still has the opportunity to win a gold medal in the 200m backstroke tomorrow.

While she has not openly criticised the dictatorship of Mugabe, she knows her athletic triumphs on the world stage are a more powerful weapon.

In an interview in April this year, after winning five medals, including four gold, at the world short-course championships in Manchester, Coventry made a rare mention of Mugabe.

"Everyone there including President Mugabe knows something needs to change because so many people are hurting," she said. "I hope that (change) does happen. I know that's part of why I'm doing what I do. I hope it makes a difference and gives people back home hope that things will change for the better."

In Manchester, Zimbabwe finished fourth on the medal table behind the US, Australia and
the Netherlands. And the power of one is at it again in Beijing. Zimbabwe is 23rd on the medal table with three silvers so far.

The country has won seven medals in 10 appearances at the Olympics - Coventry has six of those. The other was the women's hockey team in Moscow in 1980 - the year Zimbabwe gained independence from Britain and Mugabe came to power.

It must irk Mugabe that Coventry has united a nation of blacks and minority whites that he has tried to divide. He called Coventry "a golden girl" and hosted the reception for her after the 2004 Olympics, presenting her with a diplomatic passport - allowing unhindered movement and travel free from security forces - and $US50,000.

Coventry, who turns 25 next month, has not lived in Zimbabwe since she left. She speaks with an American accent but she will not give up her Zimbabwean passport. She has said she hopes to return one day.

"I will always go back to visit," she said.

"The problem is that the economy is just so bad right now. It's really hard for youngsters to start out in life. Now if it ever got better ... my memories growing up are so positive that I would certainly love for my kids to have the same opportunity. But for right now, I'm just dealing with the daily pressures and not thinking that far ahead."

And one of those pressures has been to speak in political tones about the upheaval at home.
But in another interview this year, with Reuters news agency, Coventry said: "I strongly believe that athletics and politics should not mix. I just need to be proud that I get to compete for and represent my country and that's it. What I love is seeing people back home feeding off my success, and giving them something to cheer for."