While Zimbabwe’s top sport administrators hailed the late Mark Manolios as the doyen  and granddad of Olympic sport and hockey in Zimbabwe, some South African distributors shared their private memories of the man they got to know as a mentor, industry legend, retail supporter and very good friend.

Manolios’ unexpected collapse and death from heart failure in a Johannesburg hotel after being discharged from hospital where he had undergone a minor operation, came as a shock to all. Although aged 78, he was still very active and on his way to meet several friends in the industry at the Cape Town Marathon Expo.

For many members of the South African sports industry he had been much more than just a retailer who made three sport stores flourish in the almost impossibly difficult Zimbabwean market – he was akin to family. Last year, when Sports Trader spoke to him after the Zimbabwean coup-that-wasn’t, he also mentioned how he appreciated the friendship of his family in the local industry – people like Jaco Kirsten of Orbit Sports, Eugene Brown of Brand ID, Brian Kerby, formerly of adidas and ASICS, the De Wets – suppliers of Medalist equipment – and many more. Despite the currency problems Zimbabwean traders experienced, he could confidently say “I have no bad friends in South Africa.”

Mark Manolios (right) taught him the ropes in the industry when he started his Orbit Sports Manufacturing company at the end of the 1990’s, says Jaco Kirsten (middle). Photo: Nicol du Toit.

Manolios was his mentor in the industry, who taught him the ropes when he founded Orbit Sports as a youngster, says Kirsten. They subsequently became firm friends – he even received an invite to Manolios’ daughter’s wedding – and he regularly saw Mark and his wife Alison when they stayed in their flat in Durban. “He was a real go-getter who knew everybody, including all the politicians, in Zimbabwe,” he says. “But, he was also a true gentleman.”

“Mark typified the quiet, humbleness of a Zimbo and was always there to offer assistance,” adds Gary van Rooyen of Coreban, who first met him at a Nike conference in the late 1990’s. “Every time we saw him, he extended an open invitation to come over and visit. In an extremely difficult business and sales environment, Mark somehow delivered the goods and met his targets year after year. He was a popular figure at Nike and a great team player. The sports industry is poorer for his loss. All the best to Mark’s family and friends.”

Mark Manolios was a legend and his passing is a sad loss, agrees Kerby, who first met him as a youngster, soon after he started working for Dunlop Slazenger. Because of Manolios’ involvement in hockey, he was especially interested in Slazenger’s hockey and cricket ranges. But, at that stage, sports equipment was extremely scarce in Zimbabwe.

When Kerby and his then girlfriend – now his wife – embarked on a trip to Zimbabwe in 1995, Manolios urged him to bring as many samples as he could. “When you get to the border, tell them the equipment are a donation for kids on this farm,” he advised.

Apart from their flagship store in Avondale, Harare, Mark Manolios Sports opened a store in Arundel Village, which is double the size, as well as a branch in the a Chisipite Shopping Centre during 2012.

Kerby duly loaded the car and approached the border post with trepidation, but as Manolios predicted, he was waved through. They stayed with the Manolios’ in Harare and “true to his word, Mark bought all the samples. That gave me the necessary Zim dollars to spend on the trip, and ever since then we’ve laughed about how my samples paid for my Zimbabwean holiday.”

Over the years they stayed in touch. When visiting Zimbabwe as adidas SA MD, Kerby could witness how even when the Zimbabwean economic conditions became really tough, Manolios made plans to roll out and open two more stores.

During the last few years his daughter, Kristina Evans, had taken over most of the management of the three stores Manolios had founded and grown over the past 44 years. He opened the first Mark Manolios Sports (MMS) in 1973 at the Avondale Shopping Centre in Harare, which became THE branded sports equipment hub and advice centre in the country. In 2012 he opened two more Harare stores in quick succession.

“Kristina has been doing an amazing job,” says Kerby. The business has flourished with her in charge.”

Mark Manolios (middle) and his wife Alison visited Peter Howard on his stand during a SASGAM trade show. Photo: Nicol du Toit.

In Zimbabwe Manolios is remembered for the tremendous contribution he made to sport in the country. He served on the Zimbabwean Sports Commission for 12 years and on the Zimbabwean Olympic Committee (ZOC) for 26 years, during which time he accompanied teams to the Olympic Games nine times as coach or administrator, two of them as Chef de Mission. He was also twice elected Vice-President of the ZOC and is credited as the driving force behind Zimbabwe’s  hosting of the 1995 All-Africa Games.

“I have never met anyone in my life who is so passionate about sports development and doing it right than Mark Manolios,” said former ZOC president Tommy Sithole. This included development from grassroots to senior level.

But, it was especially as hockey coach, administrator, international umpire and member of the equipment committee of the world hockey organisation, FIH, that he made his mark. He was eventually honoured with a life Presidency of Zimbabwe Hockey. The period 1970-85, when Manolios was national hockey coach, is known as the golden years of Zimbabwean hockey, when the ladies national team won the gold medal at the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow. The team became a strong contender on overseas tours, for example, beating the European champions Spain twice in one week at the Eight Nations Tournament. His wife, Alison, was also a member of the national hockey team.