Swimmer Kirsty Coventry is Zimbabwe’s most decorated Olympian, having won seven Olympic medals in her career. Here, she reflects on her success at the games and her work as a member of the IOC athletes’ commission
WHAT THE GAMES MEAN TO ME
The Olympic Games are an event where athletes get to compete against each other at the highest level in world-class venues. But for me, it’s also about the overall experience and getting to learn about different people and cultures. You are not just meeting athletes from within your sport, but from all the different sports who are congregating in one place. It’s a very special thing.
MY FIRST OLYMPIC EXPERIENCE
My first Games were in Sydney in 2000. I was 16 years old and it was exciting, but I was nervous. I’d never swum in front of a crowd bigger than 50 people back home, but suddenly I was walking onto the pool deck in front of 14,000 people and it was very intimidating. But I remember an older swimmer walking past me and wishing me good luck, and that’s what the Olympic spirit is all about. It’s about helping the people next to you to achieve their goals while you’re achieving your goals. That is something I’ll never forget. Another highlight was seeing Muhammad Ali getting a tour around the Olympic Village. At the Games you get to meet your heroes, or superstars whom you never thought you’d have the chance to meet. That’s very unique.
DIFFERING EXPECTATIONS AT THE GAMES
Going into the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, I had started doing better on the international stage and there was a lot of pressure. But I won my first Olympic medals – the first for Zimbabwe in 24 years – so it was a really big deal and very exciting. I loved Athens, and going to the place where the modern Olympic Games started was very special. Beijing in 2008 was different. Since I had won an Olympic title I was going to the Games to defend it, so the focus was taken away from the enjoyment of the Games and the expectations were very much result-based.
I actually wish I’d taken more time to enjoy everything that was going on, because my experience was very much about going from one race to the next, and I didn’t have the proper appreciation for where I was at the time. London was different again because I was more experienced, so I knew what to expect. I had a bad few months leading up to London – I’d injured my knee four months before the Games and then was in hospital with pneumonia for two months – so expectations were lowered and there was less pressure. I was just happy to be there and I really took it in. London was super fun.
CHERISHING MY FINAL GAMES
I’m a little bit older now  and 2016 will probably be my last Games, so I’m taking the time to remember how lucky I am to have participated in this sport for so long. Swimming can be a little bit individualised, and you can become selfish as you’re trying to control everything to do with your performance, but I want to be able to appreciate everything that goes on while I’m in Rio de Janeiro.
When you’re younger and starting out it’s exciting, but you don’t truly appreciate everything that happens around the Games. As athletes, we just show up, everything is built, everything is ready, it looks beautiful and you never really see what happens behind the scenes. But as you get older you realise that it doesn’t just build itself, and you appreciate all of the workers and volunteers who have helped to make it happen.
THE OLYMPIC VALUES
I think the Olympic values and the Olympic spirit are what make the Games so special. It’s very unique that we have 206 National Olympic Committees represented at the Games, with 10,500 athletes from around the world – all with different backgrounds and beliefs – living in the Olympic Village. Everyone is there for a specific purpose, and while you’re in a situation that is very competitive, there is also a great level of mutual respect and understanding because you’ve all worked really hard to get there. That’s something I want to take into my life after the Games, or take back to my community, or into business, that we can be respectful of each other and still achieve really great things.
REPRESENTING THE ATHLETES
I became a member of the IOC Athletes’ Commission in 2013. It was an exciting time because we were voting for a new President and there was a lot of talk about the future of the IOC, and how we could give the athletes a stronger voice.
The new President, Thomas Bach, put a big focus on making sure the athletes remain at the heart of the Olympic Movement and, after the publication of Olympic Agenda 2020, the relationship between the IOC and the Athletes’ Commission has become stronger. We’re definitely being asked to voice our opinions more often and that is something that is very exciting.
There are 15 of us on the Athletes’ Commission and we represent all the athletes. We hold an athletes’ forum every two years, where we get feedback from the athletes and the different stakeholders. We then voice those opinions at IOC Commission meetings and make sure they’re heard. Right now, we have a great team and it’s working very well.
PROTECTING CLEAN ATHLETES
One of the main focuses for the Athletes’ Commission is protecting clean athletes.
It was one of the key recommendations of Olympic Agenda 2020 and each Member of the IOC feels very strongly about it. A few members of the Athletes’ Commission sit on the World Anti-Doping Agency [WADA] Athlete Committee, and I sit on WADA’s Executive Board. We fight very hard to make sure that our sports are clean sports, and that the Olympic Games are going to be a clean Olympic Games. We have been making strides to ensure we’re giving our support when it’s needed, and communicating a strong message that the Olympic Movement does not support any form of doping, and that we will only support clean athletes.