Through doing The Level Playing Field, I’ve been so fortunate to speak to amazing athletes across the globe. But it struck me when I was talking to a family friend who suggested I get in touch with Anita Neil. Not only was she an Olympian and a European and Commonwealth medallist, but she was also from my very own small hometown of Wellingborough. I had spent so much time trying to outsource interesting stories, but I had absolutely no idea that I would have one of the most interesting ones right on my doorstep.
My naïve ignorance of Anita’s story was completely indicative of the way that Anita and her achievements have been unusually and inexplicably ignored in sporting history. Anita became the first female British black Olympian back in 1968, but until recently her story has faded into relative obscurity when you compare it to her achievements.
Anita came from Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, where she still lives. With a black GI father, and a white mother, Anita’s mum was left with 5 children mostly on her own. Anita only saw her dad between the ages of 3 and 6. “It was generally a happy childhood. The local children played with us and accepted us at a young age, but when we got older we became more aware of our differences, as our friends started to learn behaviours through their parents. My sister and I were the only two mixed race children at our primary school,” she said.
“The first time I realised I was fast, I was racing my father home aged 3. I beat him and he said to my mum, ‘she’s going to be a runner.'”
Anita quickly realised from a young age, that despite her perceived difference to others in her community, she did have a clear talent that made her stand out. “The first time I realised I was fast, I was racing my father home aged 3. I beat him and he said to my mum, ‘she’s going to be a runner.’”
“Because I was so good at running and found it so easy, it was my identity at school. I didn’t realise early on that we were different until I was about 8. In fact, it wasn’t until two West Indian boys came to the school, and we noticed they stood out and we tried to befriend them because other children didn’t. We’re still friends with one of them!”
She won everything at school, but the first time she competed competitively at the district championships, it was the first time she’d heard a pistol being used as a race starter. “It made me jump so I ran like mad. I turned around 10 yards from the tape because I couldn’t hear anybody near me and because of that, a girl overtook me. After that race I never turned around again!”
Anita began being coached by Rodger Beadsworth when she was 13, who would go onto be her coach for the rest of her Athletics career. Quickly, she was winning County Championships on the track and in long jump and All-England Schools championships in long jump age 14. “The training stepped up. I was doing weight training, circuit training, sprint training, long jump training, endurance training and just getting quicker and quicker”.
When Anita was 15, her coach got in touch with the London Olympiades Athletics Club, and she went along to ‘show what she could do’. Olympic Gold medallist and Anita’s idol, Mary Rand was there and told her she was really good, and she should join the club, and so she did. “Most weekends I used to travel to London for competition which was very tiring and expensive but after a series of competitions, I finally got my break when I represented Great Britain in Lille age 16.” Anita was, in fact, replacing her injured hero and golden girl of Athletics, Mary Rand.
“It was my first time on an aeroplane, and I was sick because I was that nervous about flying. I didn’t know anybody, and it was intimidating because here I was representing Great Britain instead of the Golden Girl Mary Rand – I was very conscious of that.”
“At that stage it was difficult because I was working 36 hours a week in a factory. It should have been 40 hours, but my work were kind enough to give me back 4 hours a week to train. My life was just work, training and sleep, whilst all my friends were going out and having fun.”
But the sacrifice paid off and Anita went on to be selected for the 1968 Mexico Olympics. “I had an idea I might be selected, but you get sent out a letter saying you’ve qualified which was amazing.”
“The Mexico City Olympics were amazing. It’s crazy looking back now, because when you’re there, you don’t think of it as being such a big thing at the time because you’ve done your training so you’re just there to carry out a job.”
Anita qualified for the finals in the 4x100m relay and the quarterfinals in the 100m but racing against the world record holder and world champion meant that she didn’t progress further. The combination of a lack of experience, lots of travelling and the altitude meant that Anita doesn’t think she quite hit her peak during those Games.
“My mum was so proud of me though, and my coach. My coach never got the acknowledgement he deserved, especially when he was my same coach the whole time. Even my neighbours back in Wellingborough got behind me. They even bought me a leather case with writing paper and envelopes so I could write letters home because obviously people didn’t have the money to come to Mexico to watch me.”
Something that will be etched in everyone’s minds from the 1968 Olympics was the notorious protest by John Carlos and Tommie Smith. I asked Anita if she had a clear memory of that event. “I remember taking a photograph of them on the podium. I didn’t know what they were doing at first, I thought they must have been mourning somebody. But as soon as I realised, it was amazing, and it’s still amazing to look back at it now and think I was there.”
Post-Olympics, Anita competed in the 1969 European Games in Athens, where she won two medals – bronze in the 100m and bronze in the 100m relay. In the 1971 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh, Anita won a silver medal in the 4x100m relay. “That was great because a couple of my work friends were able to afford to come up and watch me win!”
“At the time I actually did feel a real sense of unfairness.”
Anita earned her stripes as a double Olympian when she was selected to represent Great Britain once again at the 1972 Munich Olympics. Much like in Mexico, she made the quarter finals in the 100m, and also the finals with her 4x100m relay team. “It’s strange when I look back on it now because at that time, we were competing against a lot of communist countries. They had these huge camps where their athletes were fed differently, possibly taking illegal drugs, and at the time I actually did feel a real sense of unfairness.”
In a similar vein to how the Mexico Olympics will be remembered for the John Carlos and Tommie Smith protest, the 1972 Olympics will forever be remembered because of the attack to the Olympic village where 8 members of the Palestinian terrorist group Black September, took nine members of the Israeli Olympic team hostage, killing two of them. In an ensuing shootout at the Munich airport, the nine Israeli hostages were killed along with five terrorists and one West German policeman. “We were aware of it as it was going on and it was scary at the time. The British Men’s team weren’t too far away from it, and for a while we weren’t allowed to go in certain areas. It created a very uncomfortable feeling around the village for a while.”
“Nowadays people have nutritionists, agents, sponsors, social media and media. I didn’t have any of that.”
Despite Anita’s success on a world stage between 1966 and 1972, post-Olympics, she found herself with no coach, nowhere to train and no one to train with. “Nowadays people have nutritionists, agents, sponsors, social media and money. I didn’t have any of that and I just wasn’t on people’s radars, so I gradually faded away from it. I was still working the whole time and training on my own in a school field, but then quite simple things led to me stopping. I used to stay in London with an elderly couple when I trained or competed, but they moved away so I couldn’t afford to go to London anymore.”
If we now look at our most successful British athletes and Olympians now, so many of the are women of colour who came from similar backgrounds to Anita. I asked Anita when she looks at the likes of Dina Asher-Smith, Katarina Johnson-Thompson, Denise Lewis, Dame Kelly Holmes, Dame Jessica Ennis-Hill and Christine Ohuruogu, does she ever think ‘that should have been my experience’?
“It’s a shame but it is what is is – I was from a different time and a different world.”
“I am from a different generation. If you didn’t have money or live near the cities, it was really hard. Nowadays, those women maybe lived near the cities and so they had all these amazing opportunities that I never had. They have access to state-of-the-art training tracks, international coaches, nutritional support, mental health support, other people to train with. Whereas I was training on a rough school field with a rugby and a hockey pitch. It’s a shame but it is what it is – I was from a different time and a different world.”
Although we can’t profess to being 100% there in terms of racial equality and equal opportunity in Athletics, it is one of the sports that has come the furthest since the days of Anita competing in the 1960s.
“The playing field is levelling in Athletics but that doesn’t mean things are perfect.”
“I think it’s wonderful where Athletics has come. I was the only non-white person on the British team, and I just didn’t think anything of it. You’ll now see an all-black relay team which is great. The playing field is levelling in Athletics but that doesn’t mean things are perfect. Whether we like it or not, we’re all still born unequal, and I was subject to that on so many fronts.” Anita’s race, her background, her gender, her financial situation, her age and her lack of access to facilities stood as huge obstacles to her Athletics career. Talented individuals now may have to face a couple of those obstacles, but rarely all six.
“I was watching all these people that I should have been running against.”
Perhaps the most symbolic occasion of this was when a black American Olympic official who Anita had met at the 1968 Olympics asked her to meet up at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, but when Anita said she wasn’t competing because she hadn’t trained for the last 3 years, he paid for her to go and watch the games. Anita stood in the stands cheering on her teammates of four years before. “I was watching all these people that I should have been running against.”
Anita did have a brief entry back into the world of competitive running when she ran in the 2001 Vets World Championships in Brisbane. This same American official told Anita that if she did the qualifying time to get into the Championships, he would sponsor her to go and she did. In her first heat, she was in the lead of the 100m but with about 5m to the end, Anita sprained her hamstring. Limping to the line, she still scrambled 2nd place, qualifying for the finals. But due to the injury she’d picked up, she couldn’t run in the Final.
Renewed awareness of Anita’s story has taken her by surprise. “It’s all about Black Lives Matter I suppose, but for me, I’ve been helping out and giving back to my sport the whole time,” Anita said. Anita does plenty in the local community, going into schools, presenting awards and trophies at sports clubs, opening the Wellingborough Museum, giving talks and going along to local Athletics events. “Even at my age, I was showing youngsters how to use the starting blocks,” Anita quipped. She’s even done charity work abroad, when she travelled with Olympian Kevin Brown and International Canisus Alcindor to St Lucia, taking sports equipment with them and helping coach young and budding local athletes.
It was therefore particularly surprising when the famous Olympic Torch came through Wellingborough back in 2012, and Anita wasn’t asked by the local council to be a torch bearer. “I was extremely disappointed”, Anita said, “I stood there and watched the race from the side-lines, just as I had in Montreal in 1976, thinking ‘I should be doing that’. The reason I wanted to do it was to do it on behalf of my Olympic relay friends, whom we lost prematurely.” As Wellingborough’s only Olympian, the decision to not include Anita in the Olympic torch race was and still is an extremely questionable one.
Anita asked herself the question of ‘was that a level playing field when I was competing?’. Under the circumstances, she deduced “I did good for what I had.” It’s tempting to wonder what Anita’s career would have looked like if she was born in another generation, where financial concerns or racial and gender barriers would not have plagued her career so severely. But Anita tries not to look at it like that; “being an Olympian in itself is amazing for me, and I will always know the sacrifices that I made for that. Even though an Olympic medal did elude me, hopefully my grandchildren can carry on where I left off!”