Last November, after twenty years of lacing up my running spikes, I retired from competitive athletics. I had given a lot to the sport, both in body and mind, and I left happy to move on to a new life.
This month, though, I have been pulled back into athletics. Not because I’ve been stepping back on the tracks I once ran on, but because I, and Black former teammates, have been left incredibly shaken by the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery. Their deaths have sent a ripple through the entire Black community, and athletes are no exception: for many of us, it’s brought back traumas we have long kept in the back of our minds, under lock and key. Traumas that can no longer be ignored.
In the wake of these racist killings, I’ve heard people say “it’s an American problem” or “we don’t have racism in the UK”. This is far from true. As a young girl growing up in Liverpool, my parents would always tell me “you’ll have to work twice as hard as your white counterparts” to succeed. Our parents never taught us that that was wrong, it was just what they knew – what they experienced when they arrived on British soil. I guess they didn’t want their children to go through similar situations, so we were given no choice but to excel in any profession. That strong work ethic has shaped my life and career in sport for the better, but it’s tiring. Imagine having to learn about systematic racism as a child? Imagine knowing from a young age that being Black and mediocre has never been an option.
As I navigated my way through my chosen sport, I would have people ask if I was ‘really British’ with a Nigerian name that some struggled to understand (even though they could say names like Borzakovskiy), asking if my natural hair was ‘real’ when I wore it out, and shut me down whenever I’d challenge a team manager. Making myself palatable in white spaces was tiring, as was the ‘code-switching’ to make white people comfortable.
My job gave me the chance to compete in one incredible country to the next. But this didn’t come without its problems.
In my career, I always found joy competing abroad. My job gave me the chance to compete in one incredible country to the next. But this didn’t come without its problems. On one flight to Norway, woke up in my window seat to the male passenger next to me licking my arm. Disgusted and full of rage, he said: “I wanted to know what a black girl tastes like.” Young and fearful, I spent the rest of the flight standing by the restrooms.
A few years later in Italy, I went for a pre-competition warm up before my race. In a street with some grassy lanes not too far from the hotel, going through my usual strides and active drills, I could see an older woman watching from her apartment balcony. This kind of thing happened quite often, but this felt different. As I was about to leave and head back to the hotel, a police car appeared out of nowhere. Two officers got out, and one asked in broken English where I was from, and did I have any ID. They informed me that someone had called to say there was a black girl trespassing. The neighbour has called the police on me.
Frightened, scared and confused, I knew I had to stay calm throughout the ordeal. The officers knew a track meet was being held that day, so once I showed them my accreditation they realised I was an athlete and apologised. I headed back to the hotel, but not without deeply painful feelings over what I had just encountered. The chance of being sat in the back of a police car, or even in jail, over the baseless assumption of a racist neighbour terrified me.
Needless to say, I didn’t perform well that day, and left the track reeling from not just a bad performance but the traumatic experience hours before. For a while after the incident in Italy, I would only do my pre-competition warm up or go to the local supermarket with another athlete who wasn’t black. It sounds trivial, but that is the burden I and other Black athletes have to carry throughout our careers.
Our multi billion-pound sporting industry benefits hugely from the talent, hard work and dedication of Black athletes.
I never told anyone from my federation about those incidents, and here’s why: I felt uncomfortable telling a head coach and staff who were mainly white, and had never faced any form of racial discrimination. Had there been a team leader who was Black, it certainly would have been easier and possibly protected, even safe. I’m sure there are countless Black athletes with similar stories to mine, some even worse.
At the Rio 2016 Olympics, of the 80 athletes on the athletics team, 36 of us (or 45%) were Black. Of the 44 members of support staff, only 11 of those were BAME, or 25%.Despite everything Black athletes have achieved over the years, this goes to show we remain so underrepresented in leadership roles and boardrooms – particularly in sports we dominate.
Black athletes need support from the top down – from people who look like them. ‘You can’t be what you can’t see’ is a saying I’ve heard many times over the years – but our sporting systems have permitted white people to flourish in all sectors, while other races are deprived of the same opportunity.
Posting black boxes on social media is not enough. Organisations across sport should be accountable now, and I implore organisations from The British Olympic Association (BOA) to the Lawn Tennis Association to the FA to step up and create a tangible, rigorous plan of action. We’re not asking them to dismantle white supremacy, and institutional racism being uncomfortable for many – but so is staying silent or, worse, brushing it under the carpet.
Until then, it’s up to current and former Black athletes like me to stay engaged, to provide solutions and representation at the highest level. Our multi billion-pound sporting industry benefits hugely from the talent, hard work and dedication of Black athletes across Britain. It doesn’t seem much to ask that we have a seat at the leadership table.
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