In spite of being considered the premier hockey goalkeeper in her country, Sarah English never dared dream of competing at an Olympics. But it was circumstances, not ambition, that held her back. Growing up in Rhodesia, a country isolated by international sanctions, the best she could hope for was tournaments in neighbouring South Africa, a fellow pariah then under apartheid.
But in 1980 the fortunes of both her nation and her team mates changed dramatically when Zimbabwe officially became independent. Two months later, English and 15 all-white team mates boarded a Dakota cargo plane, landed in Lusaka, transferred to an Aeroflot aircraft and flew to Moscow to participate in the Games. “To say it was a scramble is polite,” English says. “Within four to eight weeks, everything changed for us.”
“To go to training around the track at the village and see Sebastian Coe run past us; Daley Thompson, it was like ‘wow, look,’” says Trish Davies, the team’s left half. “Imagine not playing any sport against other countries, then all of a sudden going to the top thing in the world,” she says. “We obviously thought we didn’t have a chance.”
The US-led boycott of the games, triggered by the Soviet Union’s 1979 invasion of Afghanistan, meant a number of top teams, including Australia, the Netherlands and West Germany, weren’t competing. The last-minute addition of the Zimbabweans helped make up numbers. Such was the hastiness of the preparations, “when we left I don’t know if we even knew who we were going to play against,” English says.
But as the six-team, round-robin competition kicked-off, Zimbabwe started to clock up victories including a surprise 2-0 defeat over the hosts. The belief began to emerge. Despite their lack of international experience, they defied the odds and snatched gold. “Nobody ever mentioned the boycott, they were all so excited,” says Anthea Stewart, the team’s player/coach. “We have only ever got acclaim.” It did, however, play on Davies’ mind. “You always want to beat the top to become the top,” she says.
Still, the overriding memories are of excitement. Trips into Moscow were pleasant but restricted. “It was regimented - get on the bus, get off the bus,” says Stewart. “The fun was in the Olympic village because they had all the entertainment there … a place to dance… and just mingling - that was fantastic.”
Once victory was achieved, the congratulatory telegrams flooded in and the team returned to a rapturous reception in their newly independent country. Huge crowds greeted them at the airport and they were each promised an ox by the government. Instead they settled for a braai (barbecue).
After the celebrations died down, the women, seven of whom still live in Zimbabwe, returned to their normal lives – there was no professional sport in Zimbabwe. But the memory of their victory lives on. “It doesn’t matter where I go - if I go out to the rural areas and people find out who I am, or what I did, they are thrilled to meet me,” says English. “You think how on earth could these people know anything about this, they have one little radio, but they are thrilled.”