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Zimbabwe’s fairytale Gold Medal in Moscow
15 May 2008 06:34

Zimbabwe is currently in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. But in 1980 the newly established independent nation (formerly Rhodesia) was celebrating a tumultuous day after they won the first women's hockey gold medal. With the Beijing Olympics just over four months away two of the players reflect on one of the country's proudest moments when it captured the gold medal and it's first ever in the Olympics.

The story of how Zimbabwe was invited to the tournament five weeks before it started and how they travelled strapped in on the floor of a meat transporter plane is almost unbelievable. Once they arrived, not only had the squad never seen an artificial surface, they didn't have the correct shoes and had to rush out and buy them! It is well known that the top nations boycotted the Games because of the Russian invasion of Afghanistan, but it remains a fairy tale and an achievement the Golden Girls are justifiably proud of.

Included in the squad were the identical twins, Sandy and Sonia Chick, both basketball internationals and certainly the only twins in Olympic hockey history to have won gold medals.

Cathy Harris spoke to the twins as they described what they remember and what has happened since.

What do you remember of it all?

Sandy: It was something we'd never dreamt of. We'd all played many times in South Africa but the newly formed government banned all sporting contact with them and we thought we wouldn't get decent competition any more. There was huge excitement once we were invited and the trip in that smelly plane was the start of building an incredible team spirit!

What happened once you arrived in Moscow?

Sonia: Security was incredibly tight and those of us who had brought biltong (spicy dried meat like jerky) had it confiscated. The Russians were terribly suspicious of most things and accreditation seemed to take an age but we didn't care - we were all just thrilled to be at the Olympics!

Compared to how intensely teams prepare nowadays, what was it like behind the scenes for the Zimbabwe squad?

Sandy: We never partied as such and when we realized we could win a medal we suddenly got a lot more serious! We had struggled to find form and organized matches against local teams as we tried various combinations. Playing on artificial turf was also difficult because none of us had ever seen it before and we arrived in Moscow without even the right shoes! We did have a curfew of 9pm but we found it difficult to sleep because it was still light at night - another thing we had never experienced!

What happened once you'd won the gold medal?

Sandy and Sonia: 'It was also noticeable how friendly other athletes in the village became and we got to know a lot of famous athletics stars including the British medal-winners Daley Thompson, Seb Coe and Steve Ovett. All the gold medalists were invited to a reception at the Kremlin and there we were socializing with all these famous names. It was all so thrilling - we just couldn't believe it was happening to us.

Neither did we have any idea as to how much it meant to all our families, friends and the public back home. Apparently people took radios to work on the final day to listen to the result (we had to beat Austria to win gold and won 4-1) - the whole country was completely swept along with the emotion of it all.'

How would you describe your Olympic experience?

Sandy and Sonia: 'We'll never forget it, particularly as it was so unexpected. We hadn't imagined we could win a medal of any color, everything seemed so out of reach, but then the gold became a possibility and we did it! It was such an amazing feeling and one we'll never forget.

From the moment we touched down in Harare there were crowds to meet us and there was a never-ending round of receptions, appearances and press obligations but of course, it eventually wore off. The overwhelming feeling was that we were all proud Zimbabweans together.'

Has winning the gold medal changed your lives at all?

Sandy and Sonia: 'Not really! It just made us feel incredibly proud'.

What is happening to hockey in Zimbabwe now?

Sandy: 'Unfortunately, like most sports in the country hockey is struggling. We did have two wonderful stadiums in the capital, Harare, and another in Bulawayo - both with beautiful artificial surfaces - but sadly they are both derelict now. The best players have left the country and a lack of coaches, admin and money has not helped the situation. We're all very sad.'

Looking back, what would you change about the whole experience in Moscow?

Both agreed they would have loved their families to have been there to share the triumph and they also said they would have liked the English language to be used more widely. Sandy said: 'Most news reports, articles and video clips of our actual games were all in Russian and English is my 'only' spoken language.'

Sandy, the oldest, was an athletic striker who played mainly on the left. She continued to live in Harare until she and her husband, Chris Szechenyi, moved to Dubai in 2006 where he works as a pilot. Their son Neil is in his final year of university in Pretoria, South Africa.

Sonia, the more placid of the two on the pitch, was a solid left defender. She married Ian Robertson, one of the country's most famous rugby players who won Springbok colors, and they have two sons and a daughter. They live near Durban in South Africa and own a coffee shop in La Lucia Mall which Sonia manages. Their oldest son, Brendon, is now the proud father of identical twin daughters so perhaps there will be another hockey medal ceremony involving twins!

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