The Exhilaration of An Olympic Non-Star
BARCELONA, SPAIN — IN track and field, first-round running heats can be rather sleepy affairs, even at the Olympics. And at 9:30 last Friday morning, no one seemed in a hurry to reach his seat as the women's 100-meter preliminaries began in the sweltering main stadium.
For some of the sprinters, though, this moment was charged with personal, even national, significance. Zambia's Ngozi Mwanamwambwa finished seventh of eight racers and did not qualify for the next round, but there was nothing but exhilaration etched in her expressive face.
"Exciting, amazing, inspirational," was how she described her first taste of the Olympics - of running before the biggest crowd of her life (maybe 25,000 early arrivals) in the same heat with eventual fourth-place finisher Gwen Torrence of the United States, and becoming the first Zambian woman to compete in the Games.
Ms. Mwanamwambwa's was the experience of an average Olympian; she is also an example of how such an athlete still can leave a mark on the Games.
Heavily male-dominated, sports have begun to open their doors to women in Africa, but sometimes the impetus comes from overseas. In this case, it was Mwanamwambwa's American mentor, Steve Morgenthaler, who planted the seed for her participation.
Morgenthaler is the assistant track coach at Principia College, a small liberal arts school in Elsah, Ill., where Ngozi (pronounced nuh-GO-zee) will be a senior. Back-and-forth faxes
Because every country in the Olympics is entitled to enter one entrant per event, Mr. Morgenthaler contacted the Zambian embassy in New York to start the wheels turning. When that yielded little, he contacted Ngozi's aunt, Zambia's assistant deputy minister of youth and fitness. "She led me to the athletic federation and from there it was just a long-running series of faxes back and forth," he says.
Zambian officials invited Morgenthaler to train Ngozi and several men runners, which he did in Barcelona and during several weeks of pre-Olympic meets in England.
A Division III, small-college champion in the US, Ngozi says racing world-class runners in Britain was very beneficial. "I'm not used to seeing people's backs in front of me," she says. "It was a very good learning experience, vitally important. After that, I programmed myself mentally for doing the best I can, not looking at place."
Her personal best in the 100 is a wind-aided 11.49 seconds, and she ran 12.13 here (her second best). With no qualifying meet to make the Zambian team, however, she was entered in three races - a rarity for any runner. She failed to advance in either the 200 or the 400 either. Training habits improve
Ngozi, whose track career is in its infancy, aspires to continue racing in major world meets, and is already thinking ahead to the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.
"Her training habits and training intensity have not caught up with her talent," says Morgenthaler. "She realizes that she needs to train a little harder."
When she arrived at Principia, her coach says, she was a virtual beginner in track who appeared to lack motivation. She attended practice only about three days out of five. "Last year she came every day, but it was half-hearted," Morgenthaler says, "and this year you could see the progress. Her fire is lit."
Ngozi says she saw no need for serious training at first, since she won many college races without it.
"After a while I wasn't happy with that because I knew I could do better," she says. "I said, `Ngozi, you have to break with this laziness and focus, challenge yourself.' "
Following the Olympics, Ngozi, a sociology major with a 3.6 grade-point average, will return to Zambia to fulfill an independent study requirement that involves studying rural women in south Africa.
To prepare for the '96 Olympics, she says she will probably train in the States, since there are no training facilities in Zambia. To do so, she might have to become a dual citizen. Though born in the United States when her father, now a Zambian parliament member, was in the diplomatic service, she has not claimed her US citizenship.
If she makes it to Atlanta, many American friends hope she won't be slighted on network TV again: Just as she was about to lead the Zambian delegation into the opening ceremonies as flag-bearer, NBC cut to a commercial.
Although Ngozi didn't make a big impact athletically here, Morgenthaler says her ability to make friends is of gold-medal caliber. "I'd wager that more Olympic athletes know Ngozi than any other athlete here, other than the famous Carl-Lewis types."
She's even been on a BBC radio program broadcast to all of Africa, and has been invited to London after her school internship to discuss her experiences.