The Olympics are a showcase of the struggle, dedication and hard work that the participants have put in.
But few athletes that have arrived in Rio for the 2016 Games have overcome circumstances greater than Zimbabwe’s women football team.
The team reached Rio by beating continental giants Cameroon in a two-legged final round of qualifiers, becoming the first team from the southern African country to qualify for a major global football event.
It also became the first team to represent the country at the Olympics in a team sport in 26 years.
But to be where they are now, the Mighty Warriors have been on an arduous, distressing and emotionally sapping journey, including the 20-year-old midfielder Mavis Chirandu, who was raised in an orphanage after her suspected teenage mother dumped her in the bushes at birth.
Chirandu miraculously survived lack of maternity care for hours before a passer-by heard her cries and called the local orphanage, SOS Children’s Village Bindura, where she was raised and learned to play football.
“Who knows what would have become of me if that man hadn’t heard me crying,” Chirandu told Al Jazeera.
“I probably would not have been here to tell this story. That man passed through that roadside for a reason. I thank him and I would like to meet him one day. If I could, I would buy him an air ticket to come to Brazil for the Olympics to watch me play. I’m sure he will be so proud of me.”
SOS Children’s Villages looks after abandoned and destitute children. Some of the youngsters, like Chirandu, are raised by foster families in the orphanage.
“I was raised by a great family, one that everyone would wish for. When I heard I had been dumped at birth by my mother, it hurt so bad. It was too much for a young girl to handle. But the family was unbelievable. They raised me up as their own.”
Football, for Chirandu, offers a chance to escape from the memories of her childhood.
“The sport is a God-given talent to me,” she said. “I fell in love with football as a young girl and haven’t looked back since. I played for a club in Bindura and my dream was always to represent my country. Qualifying for the Olympics is beyond that dream.
“You should have been there when we beat Cameroon to qualify. The girls just didn’t know how to react. We were all crying and hugging in the changing room. It was unbelievable. We had done what no other Zimbabwean football team had done.”
Personal circumstances aside, Chirandu has also shared incredible challenges with teammates.
For more than a decade, the players suffered one raw deal after another at the hands of a national federation that barely hides its attitude towards the Mighty Warriors and women’s football in general – an unwanted extra burden.
From dehumanising camping conditions, poor diet, incredibly low pay, to taxing road trips across borders for important international matches and cancellations, the Mighty Warriors have overcome every form of frustration possible and are now rubbing shoulders with the world’s top sides in Rio.
Normally, this kind of treatment affects performance and kills spirit. In the case of these women, it fuelled their ambitions, stoking competitive fires in a bunch of players determined to defy circumstances in their quest for global recognition.
Exploitation of female footballers by those above them has a history in Zimbabwe since a sexual abuse scandal hit the game 11 years ago.
Yesmore Mutero, a star player in the pioneering Zimbabwe national women’s football team, publicly accused national team coach Shacky Tauro of infecting her with HIV following a year-long affair with the married coach.
Mutero was young and beautiful. Six months after making the allegations, she fell very sick. Her family claimed no one from the country’s national football association visited her during her illness.
She died a pale shadow of herself the following March, a skeletal figure in abject poverty.
“What happened to Mutero was tragic,” Susan Chibizhe, Zimbabwe’s women football boss at the time, said.
“I think there was lack of guidance. Women’s football was new in the country and Mutero played for the first team. They became popular. The girls were not sufficiently prepared to deal with this new-found status. Perverted men went after them.
“Also, men such as Tauro were probably not properly equipped to work in such environments in which they were entrusted with young girls. I am happy now that Zifa deliberately include former players on the team’s coaching staff, so that they are there to guide the young girls.”
Tauro is considered to be one of Zimbabwe’s finest footballers of all time. He was a prolific goalscorer during his heyday with CAPS United, one of Zimbabwe’s biggest clubs.
No official inquiry was made into the allegations that Tauro had been involved sexually with a young player he was supposed to protect, as a coach and custodian.
Tauro died four years after Mutero’s death. But it is the female footballer’s death that still lingers in the memory of the current team. Her decision to speak out against sexual abuse and open up on her HIV status was seen an act of bravery.
“To me, she is a motivational person,” said one player who requested anonymity.
“We have gone through a lot as a team. We don’t get paid, we travel long distances by bus, and sometimes we fail to make it for international fixtures. To add to that, some men in influential positions solicit for sexual favours from the girls. But the Mutero incident taught us a big lesson. We don’t succumb. All we want to do is play the game we love.”
Earlier this year, the Mighty Warriors – in a camp for an African Women’s Championship qualifier against Zambia – went on strike in protest over unpaid allowances and bonuses amounting to $3,500 per player. The outstanding dues dated back to last year and also included the two-legged qualifier against Cameroon which sent them to Rio.
Local media reports said the players had been paid just $50 each since qualification.
March’s strike was just the latest of a series of industrial action taken by the team.
Previously, the players had complained of starvation while in camp ahead of important international matches.
Before a crucial match against Zambia in 2013, they were camped at a downtown backpackers’ hotel in Harare, which offered just a bed. The players, whose allowances were not paid on time, had to rely on food from well-wishers and family.
Passers-by shook their heads in disbelief at the sight of linen hanging on the players’ hotel room windows. The hotel had no laundry facilities.
Qualifying for Rio was unthinkable at that time last year.
Last July, the Zimbabwean federation failed to buy air tickets for the team’s trip to Ivory Coast during the early rounds of qualifiers.
The team did not travel. The players, who had packed their bags and said their goodbyes to family and friends, were left distraught. The fear was that Zimbabwe would be sanctioned and thrown out of the competition. FIFA awarded the first leg to Ivory Coast and the federation was fined $10,400.
Ivory Coast, however, did not travel to Harare for the second leg, citing communication breakdown.
The qualifier was awarded to Zimbabwe and a ticket to Rio that brought the much-needed stroke of good fortune for the individuals.
Follow Enock Muchinjo on Twitter: @eno_muchinjo
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