In 1980, there were two hockey shocks at the Olympics. In February, an unfancied team of American college players beat the Soviets en route to ice hockey gold at the Winter Games in Lake Placid. They called it the ‘Miracle on Ice’. Their story inspired a movie. Few could have imagined there would be an even greater sensation on the hockey field that summer in Moscow.

In its way, it was a story every bit as worthy of the Hollywood treatment.

Women’s hockey had finally been installed on the Olympic programme for the 1980 Games. Only six teams took part and the field was badly affected by the Olympic boycott.

A team from the new nation of Zimbabwe, called up at desperately short notice, seized the day and took gold.

Moscow 1980 was the first time that the name Zimbabwe was heard at an Olympic Games after a tumultuous period in the country’s history. Independence after a bitter civil war had only come in early 1980.

The country had been under British colonial rule and, in 1964, the Olympic team which travelled to Tokyo had been styled “Southern Rhodesia”. There was no women’s hockey team but the men did take part, although they won only one match.

In 1965, Rhodesian Prime Minister Ian Smith led a “Unilateral Declaration of Independence”. This brought with it Olympic ostracism. The new nation was not recognised by much of the international community and was not permitted to compete at the Mexico Games in 1968.

Zimbabwe made its Olympic debut at Moscow 1980 ©Getty Images
Zimbabwe made its Olympic debut at Moscow 1980 ©Getty Images

Before the 1972 Games in Munich, a deal was brokered with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) whereby the Rhodesians would compete as Southern Rhodesia, and fly the “colonial” flag, a blue ensign with the Union flag in the canton. They would also use the British national anthem God Save the Queen. When the team arrived at the Olympic Village, they did just that at a welcome ceremony.

The mindset was perhaps betrayed by the Rhodesian team manager Ossie Plaskitt who was widely quoted as saying “we are ready to participate under any flag, be it the flag of the Boy Scouts or the Moscow flag, but everyone knows very well that we are Rhodesians.”

This did not pass unnoticed. The Soviet IOC member Konstantin Andrianov suggested this was “a denial of the IOC terms regarding their invitation”, a view endorsed by Henry Adefope of Nigeria, who suggested they were making “a mockery of the Olympic Games”.

At the IOC session, President Avery Brundage spoke of a “very grave problem”. A lengthy debate on the Rhodesian question took place. Some 19 members joined the President in the discussion which was recorded in IOC minutes over 10 closely typed pages of notes.

A message from King Hassan II of Morocco, Acting President of the Organisation of African Unity, threatened withdrawal from the Games.

Willi Daume, the Munich organising chief, learned that there was a threat from 21 nations to leave the Games if Rhodesia was allowed to participate.

The IOC voted 36-31 to rescind the invitation and no Rhodesian took part in the Games.

Brundage insisted the image of the IOC had been “tarnished” and was severely criticised when he spoke of the incident during his remarks at the memorial service to the murdered Israeli athletes.

After Munich, the Irish peer Lord Killanin became IOC President. He organised a commission of inquiry. This was led by the Brazilian Sylvio de Magalhães Padilha.

When it had reported, the the full IOC Session discussed the problem at length some representatives of Rhodesian sport were summoned to Lausanne. The charges laid against the Rhodesian National Olympic Committee (NOC) were very similar to those which had seen South Africa excluded from the Olympic Movement in 1970.

Abraham Ordia, President of the Supreme Council for Sport in Africa said: “There is no doubt that racial discrimination and segregation have retarded the development of white and black sport in Rhodesia. Both racial groups would have benefitted from equal training facilities resulting in higher performance levels, were the facilities and competitions open to all regardless of colour.”

Eventually, the recognition of the Rhodesian Olympic Committee was withdrawn by 41 votes to 26.

A civil conflict known as the “Bush War” continued to rage, but in 1979 an agreement concluded at Lancaster House in London finally brought fighting to an end. On April 18 1980, Zimbabwe became independent.

It was significant that among the priorities was a return to the Olympic Movement. When the Executive Board met in Lausanne a few days later, Lance Cross reported that they were pressing “very hard for the recognition of the NOC.” The organisation had not dissolved in the interim and was reforming so that it would be more diverse. NOC President Frank Lincoln asked for “leniency as far as speed was concerned.”

Cross strongly recommended that they be invited to Moscow. The Zimbabweans were granted provisional recognition which would be upgraded to full membership.

By the next meeting, the formalities had been confirmed and Zimbabwe was listed among the definite entries for the Games.

Ordia expressed “great pleasure that Zimbabwe had now become a member of the Olympic family.”

The hockey team's Olympic medal is Zimbabwe's only one not won by Kirsty Coventry ©Getty Images
The hockey team’s Olympic medal is Zimbabwe’s only one not won by Kirsty Coventry ©Getty Images

The line-up in the women’s hockey tournament was still uncertain. IOC records show that by the time the Executive Board met in late May, only the host nation was definitely entered. Killanin, with masterly understatement, reported “some difficulties”.

The IOC set a deadline of June 24, less than a month before the tournament was to begin. Eventually, the Soviets were joined by Austria, Poland, Czechoslovakia, India and Zimbabwe.

This invitation was confirmed only after a telegram had been received in Lausanne stating that the Rhodesian Hockey Association was still a member of the International Hockey Federation (FIH). An invitation for the men to take part had also been sent but in the end it was decided only to send the women’s team.

Zimbabwe player-coach Anthea Stewart had recalled that when they had learned there would be a women’s tournament, “We didn’t dream we could go. It was the biggest shock and is the opening we have dreamed of.”

Stewart was an experienced player who had won representative honours with South Africa.

“We had just three weeks to come and had to gather our team within just a week before our departure for Moscow,” she said.

The team had scarcely played together, yet as Glen Byrom, writing in The Herald, the largest newspaper in Zimbabwe, predicted: “Underlying the bubbling enthusiasm of all the hockey girls, who Zimbabwe can count on to be perfect ‘ambassadresses’ [sic], is a steely resolve to impress at Moscow.”

Before leaving Zimbabwe, they played against local men’s teams. The team then flew to Moscow 10 days before the Games were to open.

The 'Miracle on Ice' was not the only remarkable Olympic hockey triumph in 1980 ©Getty Images
The ‘Miracle on Ice’ was not the only remarkable Olympic hockey triumph in 1980 ©Getty Images

Instead of a scheduled airliner, the players travelled on an aircraft used to transport meat. The party included Zimbabwe Hockey Association President Liz Dreyer and Audrey Palmer, the team chaperone.

“The main thing is for us to participate”, said team Chef de Mission John Madzima. “Our National Olympic Committee had little time to prepare an Olympic team, nevertheless we have done our best. We represent our young independent state and are eager to gain as much experience as we can. The first page in the history of the Zimbabwean Olympic Movement will be written here in the Soviet Union.”

The hockey side was captained by Ann Grant, who came from an impressive sporting family. Her brother, Duncan Fletcher, skippered Zimbabwe in the 1983 Cricket World Cup.

“We had never seen an artificial pitch and didn’t have the right shoes to play on it because we’d only ever played on sunbaked grass pitches in Zimbabwe. We had to rush out and buy them”, she told The Herald.

When the Games opened, many teams used the Olympic flag as part of a gesture of protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Zimbabwe paraded in bright blue uniforms behind a flag which bore the ‘Zimbabwe Bird’. It had only been recognised in April when independence was formally confirmed, and the Olympic Games was probably the first time it had been seen by a wider audience. Alongside the hockey players, Zimbabwe had competitors in archery, athletics, cycling, judo, sailing, shooting, swimming ,diving and weightlifting.

Albert Leiken, a leading hockey official in the Soviet union and FIH Council member predicted “Soviet sports fans will show great interest in the forthcoming tourney.”

This was played on a round-robin basis at the Young Pioneers Stadium and the minor arena at the Dynamo Stadium.

The Zimbabweans took part in the very first women’s Olympic hockey match and began in impressive style with a 4-0 win over Poland. They drew 2-2 with Czechoslovakia and then beat the Soviet Union 2-0.

Moscow 1980 was the first time many saw the Zimbabwe Bird ©Getty Images
Moscow 1980 was the first time many saw the Zimbabwe Bird ©Getty Images

Then came a 1-1 draw against the fancied Indian team in what coach Stewart described as “an extremely hard match”. She admitted the side had benefited from practice matches played against the Indian team during the time before the Games.

They were still unbeaten by the time of their last match against Austria.

The first half proved a tense affair. Sandy Chick had given them the lead from a long corner after 28 minutes. The Austrians levelled from a penalty stroke by Brigitte Kindler three minutes later. It was all square at the interval.

Leading scorer Patricia McKillop restored Zimbabwe’s advantage after 51 minutes. Gillian Cowley and McKillop added further goals to make the game safe.

McKillop later went on to coach youngsters in the sport and was also good enough to represent Zimbabwe at golf.

Twenty-three-year-old Patricia Davies, later a company director said: “We just never expected this. We got a shock with the tough game they play here but I think we played the best hockey of the tournament.”

Brenda Phillips – now Brenda Howden – was the youngest member of the side and one of many who later made their home in South Africa. She became headmistress of Auckland Park Preparatory School in Johannesburg.

“The Olympics stood me in good stead and it taught me how to fight to the top and never give up,” she told Forbes Africa many years later.

When the team came home, there were drum majorettes and a huge crowd of fans to welcome them at the airport.

“Now the older you get the more you realise how important it is. You can’t separate the independence with the golden moments. Moscow reminds us of 1980, for every reason 1980 is important,” said goalkeeper Sarah English.

The victorious Zimbabwe women's hockey team ©Wikipedia/RIA Novosti
The victorious Zimbabwe women’s hockey team ©Wikipedia/RIA Novosti

Ginny Ross, a leading umpire and life member of the Zimbabwean Hockey Association told insidethegames: “Everyone still talks about it. They put Zimbabwe on the world map for hockey. This was one of the most amazing achievements that Zimbabwe had in sport.”

The gold medal remained the only Zimbabwean success until Kirsty Coventry’s exploits in the pool at Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008. Coventry was not even born when the hockey players tasted glory.

The team members try to keep in touch but one member of the side will not be part of the 40th anniversary celebrations. Sadly Liz Chase passed away from cancer in 2018 at the age of 65.

She had been a teacher and then sports administrator at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa where she coordinated a massive fund raising effort to install an artificial hockey pitch.

Chase had played as a forward in 1980 and later recalled: “We went to a party at the Kremlin. Everyone wanted a part of us, we were all just so proud. Suddenly everybody wanted to know about Zimbabwe.”

They were christened the ‘Golden Girls’ and Prime Minister Robert Mugabe sent his “heartfelt congratulations”. His wife Sally had promised each player an ox. In fact they eventually received a package of meat.

Their triumph lives on in a schools hockey tournament which was established in Zimbabwe and takes place to this day.

“This is for the top girls school teams in the country and is a big event on the schools hockey calendar,” said Ross.

Wherever possible a member of the team returns to make the award presentations.

Zimbabwe’s women won’t be in Tokyo next year, but the success of the Golden Girls has continued to inspire hockey players in the sport. A Zimbabwean side made it to the FIH 2016 Junior World Cup in Santiago and a Zimbabwe team also took part in hockey fives at the 2018 Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires.