The Sunday Mail
The Art of Sport
IT all started with a lost bet.
Well, football legend Alois Bunjira made a bet with his friends that should Paris St-Germain — which carried a 4-0 first-leg lead over Barcelona in the Round of 16 tie in the 2017 edition of the UEFA Champions League — somehow be knocked out of the competition, he would run naked from Chitungwiza to Westgate.
As fate would have it, on March 8, 2017, Barcelona duly thrashed PSG 6-1.
But those who won the bet were gracious enough not to let Bunjira run himself into a public indecency charge.
Instead, they demanded he runs topless from Chitungwiza to Westgate.
Bunjira, his former teammate Stewart Murisa and friends duly obliged by completing the race.
However, while on it, the former star footballer thought of the possibility of running such a distance in a quiet environment, far from the city and without the risk of being run over by Harare’s notorious drivers.
The more he thought about it, the crazier it sounded.
After all, it had not really been done before.
It would be six years before he gathered the courage to bring the idea to the public.
This year will see the inaugural Honde Valley marathon. It promises to be one of the most scenic marathons in Zimbabwe, if not in the whole world.
This race is significant in many ways.
First, there is something intriguing about a former footballer switching to long-distance running and actively promoting the discipline.
The second is the idea of turning Hauna into a river of runners for an entire weekend.
Lastly, it is a masterclass of destination marketing that can go a long way in developing new and interesting reasons to visit our national places of interest.
The late Vice President, Dr Simon Muzenda, championed the Gutu half-marathon, which came to life in 1995.
A leading telecommunications provider has been spearheading a marathon in Victoria Falls annually, and it has grown into a multinational must-attend event.
Bunjira’s initiative represents the first time a race of this envisaged magnitude has been proposed in a deep rural setting.
It will be interesting to see how locals and corporates will respond.
The race will feature a full marathon — 42,2km, which is about the distance Bunjira and his friends ran after losing that bet — a half-marathon, a 5km and 10km run.
The event will also feature races for athletes with disabilities.
The Honde Valley area has seen some great developments in tourist infrastructure.
Lately, a skywalk with some of the most spectacular views in the country was erected.
In addition, bringing together the Eastern Highlands and athletics could end up being a masterstroke in the long term.
Zimbabwe has produced some accomplished long-distance athletes — including Tendai Chimusasa, Abel Chimukoko, Stephen Muzhingi, Mike Fokorani, Samukeliso Moyo and Rutendo Nyahora.
The greatest long-distance runners are usually found in Kenya, Ethiopia and now Uganda. Other nations in that region are following suit. Part of their secret has been training at high altitude.
While Hauna itself lies about 900m above sea level and is not considered a high-altitude area, the surrounding peaks can go up to 1 800m, creating incredible training opportunities for endurance athletes.
The high mountain ranges also present an opportunity for enterprising sports management concerns to promote a discipline that has consistently brought medals to Zimbabwe.
Consider the success of Zimbabwean long-distance runners in events like the Comrades Marathon, the Sao Silvestre 10km in Luanda and many others.
Imagine if the country had a dedicated programme for the identification of long-distance runners, their professional training and managed races!
The sporting world has a chance to look beyond the opportunity and see the possibilities presented by rural sports tourism.
In a country with many beautiful natural spaces, this could be the opening that needs to be built on.
In the end, local athletics may very well be the ultimate beneficiary of a bet lost on a Spanish ground by a French team and paid for by a football legend, who has a huge profile in the country and in South Africa.
This makes the Hauna marathon a truly globally conceived event, and it looks like it is only a matter of time before it is recognised as such.
Feedback: [email protected]