By Langton Nyakwenda
At the peak of his athletic powers, he ran 100m in 9,9 seconds, becoming the first African and fourth black person to do so.
South of the Equator, Artwell Mandaza was the first athlete to run under 10 seconds, a feat he achieved in 1970. He was also Zimbabwe’s first black Sportsman of the Year, walking to the podium to collect the big one at Meikles Hotel in 1970 in what was then Southern Rhodesia.
Now 70, those feet that saw him break records and race against a horse in 1984 are swollen and Mandaza’s heart is heavy. He has nothing to show for all the sweat he left on the running track. The house he lives in is dilapidated.
The numerous accolades he won on the track are tucked in an old display cabinet at his homestead in Chiweshe communal lands. Mandaza’s wife passed away in 2015, a few months after he had recovered from a stroke that incapacitated him for almost two years.
Our initial attempt to track him down at his rural home in Chiweshe, just over 100km from Harare, drew blanks. Mandaza had travelled to Chitungwiza for tests on his swollen feet.
But his sister-in-law was present and told The Sunday Mail Sport a sad story.
“The story of my babamukuru (brother-in-law) is so heartbreaking. Look at his house, in that state? People always talk about his achievements in athletics but that dilapidated house you see there is all that he has in his name. At least they (Government) should address his situation given the way he raised this country’s flag,” said Tsitsi Mandaza.
In Chitungwiza, our crew found a frail Mandaza.
“I am very touched, you have showed great concern by visiting me,” said the athletics legend who is being nursed at his daughter’s home. “I hear you went to my home in Chiweshe, what did you see? You saw my house, how bad is it?”
Seated on a couch, his swollen feet resting on a stool, Mandaza and opened up his heart.
“My main issue is why people always ask the question ‘where are they now’ when talking about yesteryear sporting greats. If they find us what will they do for us? Nothing!” thundered Mandaza.
He compares his predicament to that of football great George Shaya.
“Shaya was a great soccer player, his records you are aware of. I was a great champion in athletics and together we were the pride of black Zimbabweans in the 1960s,” he said.
“But, I am now being lampooned for being a former champion. Ane chii manje iye akamhanya kudaro (what does he have given his past achievements)? people ask sarcastically. People think I blew the money I earned as an athlete yet the truth is that we competed for peanuts.
“I participated and won numerous international races in Germany and South Africa but I only got a pat on the back. The white administrators back then, took all the prize monies.”
In 1970, representing Rhodesia at a race in South Africa, Mandaza clocked 9,9 seconds, becoming the first African to break the 10-second barrier.
Veteran sports administrator Tommy Sithole said it’s a pity that Mandaza never got a chance to prove his worth on the Olympic stage.
“Tragically, Mandaza never competed in the Olympic Games because his incredible 10,3 to 9,9-second searing sprints were perfumed when ‘pariah state’ of Rhodesia was barred from the Olympics,” wrote Sithole in 2015.
Mark Manolis said Mandaza was an incredible advert for local athletics.
“Artwell is a legend and a very humble person. He was idolised for running under 10 seconds which at that time was a rarity,” said Manolis, Zimbabwe’s chef de Mission at the 1984 Olympic Games held in Los Angeles, US.
And something extraordinary happened in the build up to the USA Games. Mandaza competed against a horse over 60 metres at the Borrowdale Race Course as part of a fundraising campaign for the Zimbabwean team.
He had already retired from the sport and was now coach of the athletics team preparing for the Summer Olympics.
“I remember the day very well, Borrowdale Race Course was packed to the rafters,” recalled Mandaza. “The conditions were not conducive because the grass was long, the track was wet. The conditions suited the horse.
“But I had a mission, I had to do it for the Olympics team. The gun was fired and the horse trailed me for most of the race. But just as I was about to reach the finishing line, the horse used its long nose to pip me in a memorable photo finish.”
After that unique race, money was raised for the team and Zimbabwe was represented at the 1984 Olympic Games. But Mandaza feels his contribution to that successful trip to the US is always downplayed.
“Some people will not tell you the purpose of that race, they will not emphasise the role I played in raising funds for the nation.
“The nation has forgotten about me completely. Once in while some people come and promise to honour me but nothing ever materialises and I bet I am not alone in this predicament. A lot of yesteryear greats are suffering and all you people ask is ‘where are they now?’” The Sunday Mail