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Zimbabwe Athletes Launch Human Rights Protest - 2003-02-10

Two of Zimbabwe's most prominent athletes have issued a strongly-worded condemnation of the human rights situation in their country. They made their unexpected statement just before the start of the Zimbabwe team's first match in the Cricket World Cup tournament.

Zimbabwean cricketers Henry Olonga and Andy Flower issued their emotional, written protest just before the start of Zimbabwe's match against Namibia at the Harare Sports Club.

They said that while it is a great honor and privilege for them to play for their country, they could not in good conscience take to the field and ignore the fact that millions of their compatriots are starving, unemployed and oppressed.

Olonga and Flower said it is impossible to ignore what is happening in Zimbabwe, and they are deeply distressed about the situation. Among other things, they said many people have been unjustly imprisoned and tortured simply for expressing their opinions.

Henry Olonga and Andy Flower are two of the most prominent members of the Zimbabwean cricket team. Flower is considered one of the best batsmen in the world. Olonga is a formidable fast bowler and was the first black Zimbabwean to play cricket for his country.

The two players decided to wear black armbands when they took to the field Monday, and say they will continue to do so for the duration of the World Cup. They said they are "mourning the death of democracy" in their beloved Zimbabwe.

When Andy Flower walked out to bat about halfway through the Zimbabwean innings, the narrow black armband was barely visible against the dark green sleeve of his uniform, but word of the statement had already spread to many spectators.

Flower and Olonga said they struggled to think of an appropriate action that would, in their words, not demean the game they love so much. They said if they remained silent, they believed it would be taken as a sign that they either condone or do not care about what is happening in Zimbabwe.

They also said they chose to act alone, without involving any other team members, because they did not want to use their senior status to influence more junior members of the squad.

Controversy over the World Cup Cricket matches in Zimbabwe has made sporting headlines for weeks. When Olonga and Flower issued their protest statement, the English cricket players were still in the process of deciding whether they would play their match scheduled for Harare on Thursday. The players say they do not want to go to Zimbabwe because of security concerns.

There was no immediate reaction to the Flower and Olonga statement from the Zimbabwe Cricket Union.