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Coventry won gold, silver and bronze medals

8/25/2004

HARARE, Zimbabwe -- Zimbabwe put aside an official hate
campaign against the nation's tiny white community Wednesday and
hailed its triple-medal-winning Olympic swimmer Kirsty Coventry as
"a national treasure."

Coventry, who is white and trains at Auburn University in
Alabama, won gold, silver and bronze medals in swimming events at
the Athens Games.

Tribal dancers, beating drums and gyrating in mesh skirts and
animal skins, greeted the swimmer at the main Harare Airport, along
with hundreds of chanting fans waving banners describing her as
"Our Golden Girl, Our Heroine."

"We never expected this," Coventry's coach, Peter Dalzell.
"The welcome has been somewhat overwhelming."

Paul Chingoka, head of the Zimbabwe Olympic Committee, spoke of
"tears of joy" when the Zimbabwe anthem was played and the
national flag was raised three times.

"Never before has Zimbabwe been in such a situation," he said.
"Kirsty is our national treasure. I don't have enough words to say
about her. We just went berserk -- we went ballistic."

Coventry, 20, who has been studying in the United States for
three years, spoke in a distinctive American accent.

"I am so full of pride and feel honored so many people have
come out to see me," she said. "I am very excited to be given a
chance to come home and share it with everyone here."

The Zimbabwe Olympic Committee said Coventry had been scheduled
to fly directly to the United States from Athens but quickly agreed
to a stopover in Harare.

The country's diminishing 30,000-strong white community has been
the target of vitriolic political attacks by President Robert
Mugabe and ruling party officials.

Whites are repeatedly accused of supporting and bankrolling
opposition to Mugabe and have been threatened with arrest and
deportation.

Coventry herself, speaking in Athens, referred only briefly to
her homeland's political and economic turmoil, saying she hoped
conditions would soon improve.