Coventry won gold, silver and bronze medals

Updated: August 25, 2004, 2:47 PM ET
Associated Press

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."

Kirsty Coventry
Coventry hopes her country's conditions improve soon.
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.


Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press