Ken Harnden: 2x Zimbabwean Olympian – “If you treat your athletes well, they’ll want to represent home.”
By: Hephzibah Adesina
Mhoroi, Harare in the building!! With his speed, flexibility, and cohunes on the ground, Ken Harnden holds two Zimbabwean records, one in 4 x 400m relay with 3:00.79 minutes, achieved at the 1997 World Championships in Athens, and the other in 400m hurdles with 48.05 seconds. Not many people on earth can say that they are the closest thing to Black Panther.
When interviewing Coach Ken Harnden, I saw his passion for this sport, an expectation from a pro-athlete who has reached his rarified status. This passion led him to coach, where he has also created achievements that match those made earlier in his career. Ken’s career is filled with 14 Olympians, 25 NCAA individual champions along with two collegiate records, and five NCAA team titles under his pedagogy.
In this interview two time Zimbabwean Olympian, Ken Harnden, talks about his dedication to track and field, his commitment to Africa, NCAA, federations, Jude Monye, and so much more.
H: I learned that you’re Zimbabwean, and I found that to be extremely interesting because you don’t meet too many White Zimbabweans or White Africans who call themselves Africans. I usually hear, “Oh yeah, I’m British, but I live in South Africa.”
K: Well, I’m the sixth generation in my family to be born there, and as far as I’m concerned, Zimbabwe is home. I haven’t lived there in a long time, but it’s still my home. It is where I will go back to when I retire. It’s where a Iot of my good friends are. So definitely home.
H: Do you feel as if you relate to Africa instead of the western world since it is your home?
K: Yes! It’s definitely an interesting world that we are in with all the racial injustices happening in America and even in Zimbabwe. I grew up with far more black friends than I did white friends. My mom dated a black man in the ’60s. Most of my friends were Black Africans, and we spent most of my time in Zimbabwe together. I ran track, and I was usually the only white guy at most events and meets, so I am very comfortable in that. I definitely identify, as far as I’m concerned, with being African. As I said, I am a sixth-generation African, and that’s what I consider myself. Some people, especially in America, take umbrage with that, and that’s their problem. As far as I’m concerned, I’m African.
H: You’re African, and you’re a two time Olympian! I did a little research, and I am extremely impressed.
K: I was okay. Thank you.
H: Humility is a great virtue, but I think you were more than okay.
K: Look, I was very lucky. I had good coaches, and I was blessed with the opportunity to come to the States and go to college. I blew my knee playing rugby my senior year of high school, so I really wasn’t sure that I would play any sports after high school, but it all worked out. So yes, very lucky.
H: That’s amazing. This issue’s theme is fear, so I figured we could talk about the athlete’s perspective, especially internationals. When doing my research, I saw that you coached 14 Olympians, so clearly, you’ve seen a lot. What would be some advice you would give to Africans and other internationals who want to run in America, but maybe lack the opportunities, and despite that, they still want to make it to the next level.
K: For many years, I have tried to push the federation in Zimbabwe to spend money on preparing junior athletes to come to America instead of spending money on senior athletes. It’s almost like a farm system in baseball. It’s a minor league soccer club. All the major soccer clubs in England have their junior teams and things like that, and the NCAA is essentially that, but it comes with this added bonus in education that you get in the process. I think the federations, especially in Africa, the federations in the Caribbean, certainly could benefit from pushing their athletes to join the NCAA system, especially since it’s such a great system. It doesn’t mean that they have to force their athletes to come here, but allowing them to have the opportunity, giving them the option, doesn’t hurt. Allow young kids at 14 or 15 to take the right classes, prepare for the SAT, get to know the system, and be educated on the process. So, when they are a senior in high school, they know they have been prepared with the opportunity to go to America. When I was running professionally in the nineties, there were so many competitions in Europe to run that you could almost run a race every three days the whole summer. A lot of those smaller meets have disappeared. A lot of the young European athletes, even, who used to have an opportunity to run at a sort of semi-pro level while they were becoming a world-class athlete, those opportunities are gone. You see the numbers of European kids in the NCAA system go up significantly. However, they are certainly more prepared to come here in terms of its education because it is a different system, so you have to figure it out. I think the biggest thing is to prepare early. We got so many kids that were really good students, but didn’t take the correct math, the correct science, or didn’t do the SAT on time. I think the federations would be the ones who would have to maneuver this and help these young athletes because it would only help the federation.
H: I agree with you. It only would. Do you think the federations fear that they will come here, attempt to get citizenship, and then run for America or the UK instead of running for their home country?
K: I think that’s a fear, but there’s a very simple way around that. You put that young athlete on a junior team for their home nation, and they are forced to sit out for some time if they want to change nationality, but the other way is to treat them well. I mean, that’s not a difficult thing. There are only three people that can make the American team in each event, and there’s many kids who won’t rise to that level and make those teams. We’ve seen many, many federations, especially in Africa, treat their athletes pretty poorly. I know Nigeria had some issues at the World Championships in 2019. We’ve had our issues in Zimbabwe as well, but ultimately if you treat your athletes well, they’ll want to represent home. There was never a question for me. I could’ve gotten British citizenship. My dad had a British passport, but I didn’t. My lifetime goal was to represent my country. I think if the federations do that, they’ll end up with better kids. I think a bigger fear is the coaches influence the federations in those countries. When coaches have good young athletes, they don’t want to let them go.
H: What I’ve seen and heard about our kids in the diaspora whose ties to home aren’t as strong as the kids who grew up there, who still want to run for their home country, but fear lack of equipment and inadequate training facilities. What are some initiatives we can create for kids in the diaspora to get the proper treatment they deserve so that they can still represent their home country?
K: All of us that aren’t living at home, as it were, have left for various reasons. Some of us were pulled away by opportunities, while others were pushed away by lack of opportunities. When you’re talking about an athlete who has the opportunity to represent, for example, Nigeria, let’s say, in the Olympic games, that’s an amazing thing. I trained with Jude Monye, who was on the Olympic gold medal 4×4 in 2000. He was one of my training partners. He’s Nigerian, and they have a gold medal, right? Like how many Nigerians have a gold medal from the Olympic games? He’s one of few, and he dealt with an amazing amount of stress to get to that point, but he went through it because it was important to him, and he’s driven. In many cases, I think the governments underestimate the passion that athletes have for what they do. Most of us could easily be like; I’m done with it, let me go and get a corporate job, and life would be a lot easier. But we don’t because it’s truly a passion, and often that’s underestimated.
H: I agree. Athletes tend to be underestimated. People don’t give them enough credit or appreciate their value. <aybe it’s because they don’t see the amount of work they put in, but still. I know when my brother is home, he’s always talking about how he can’t eat this or that, and I’m just like, oh my gosh!
K: Yeah, it’s a different world; there’s no question.
H: What would you say are the positives of being a professional athlete, and then when maybe, would you say is it time to stop and try and do something else? Would you suggest they do what they studied or make way for other athletes that might want to do the same thing they are doing? Especially since it’s an industry with limited opportunities.
K: There’s not as much money and as many supporters as in other sports, and that’s for sure. The money there is eaten up by the agents, the meet directors, and people like that. The positives are that it’s the purest sport that there is. I’m better than you today, and I’m going to prove it. It’s not that my team played better than you, but I had a terrible game, and we still won. It’s still the basis for every other sport. They’re just phenomenal athletes. I think those positives would be the ability to represent your country in the Olympic game. When you walk around the Olympic village and think to yourself that there are 14 or 15 thousand people who are the best athletes on the planet out of however many billion there are, you realize how special that is and what an accomplishment it is to be there. Those things are so special. The fact that I’m an Olympian is something I will hold dear in my heart forever because it’s the accomplishment I wanted to achieve since I was three or four years old. Since that age, I would constantly write down that my goal was to be an Olympian. Partially why that was my goal was because my uncle was a great hurdler, and in 1972 Rhodesia boycotted the Olympic games, and it was a political boycott. Now here’s a guy who has trained hard, and he doesn’t get to go to the games because of politics. That was the real driving for me, to get there for him. Sports shouldn’t be politicalized, but it is a wonderful platform for us to begin change, to make the world a wonderful place. Sports are powerful. Everyone on this planet loves to watch sports. It’s a release for those people. It’s part of the reason athletes are held in such high regard. People work Monday to Friday, and on the weekends, they want to be entertained, they want to relax, they want to watch great athletes, and they want to see things and be like, “Man, I wish I would hit a major league home run. I wish I could play tennis at Wimbledon.” Those are things they dreamed and aspired to when they were young as well. That’s such a special thing. In terms of giving up the sport, when it’s time to hang up the spike, hmm, that’s a real tough one. I was lucky. I ruptured my Achilles, and my career was over. I didn’t have a choice. There wasn’t a sort of decline. I just went from you’re running to you don’t run anymore. For most athletes, when it’s not fun anymore, that’s a really good indicator that you’ve reached the end. The other way to look at it is if I’m not competitive, then I shouldn’t be doing this, and I should give way to someone else who is younger and give them a chance.
H: Yeah, with many our home countries, you see the people representing our countries are so old, and it’s like give a chance to someone younger, but for some reason, the countries aren’t letting the newer generations do their thing.
K: Right, right! That takes us back to the NCAA, right? That’s an opportunity to put young athletes in many sports, not just track and field. You have a situation that’s almost as competitive as the Olympic games or the World Championships. You go back to 2017 in London. It took 10.10 to make the final in London, and it took 10.04 final at the NCAA championship. It was harder to make the NCAA championship finals than the World finals in the same year. So, you’re giving your young athletes an opportunity and let them earn their place, and when it’s time to retire the older folks, you got young people that are ready to fill those spots, and they can become something great.
H: Also, give them the funds because being an athlete is not cheap.
K: No, it’s not. But that’s why the NCAA system is so great. The most difficult time for a federation is when their young athletes are not juniors anymore. They are super competitive at the world junior championships or a junior level, and now they become a senior, and they go from being a big fish in a small pond to being a small fish in a big pond. That transition is always difficult, and there’s a learning curve. You go back and look at Roger Federer when he left the juniors, and there were four or five years there where he wasn’t so good. Those are difficult times, but if you put your athlete through the NCAA and prepare them, and they got the scholarship, you don’t have to fund anything. All you have to do is sit back and watch them get good enough or not get good enough. Let’s put our kids where they can be successful.
H: Lastly, what would be your advice for young athletes?
K: The advice I would give to young athletes is, A) find yourself a coach you trust. I’ve seen so many great athletes who were coached by great coaches, but they didn’t trust the coach, and they failed. So, find that person you truly trust. Find a place where you’re comfortable, where you can get down, work hard, and understand the process. You don’t necessarily have to like the coach, love the coach, but you have to trust the coach. My athletes leave practice many days, and they don’t like me, and I’m okay with that. I want them to respect me and trust me, but there are days that I push them past the limit that they thought they have and they’re not real happy because they just puked all over the place, and that’s okay. The other advice would be never to give up. There’s always a way and always an opportunity to work harder and do a little bit more, but the setbacks are always the times when it’s so easy to say, “You know what, I can go get a corporate job, or I can do something different, but no.” You have to chase the dream, and you get one shot at it.