Sports

Sanderson: champion, document breaker, pioneer

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Tessa Sanderson recalls the moment when she became the first black British woman to become an Olympic champion and win gold at the 1984 Games

Tessa Sanderson recalls the moment when she became the first black British woman to become an Olympic champion and win gold at the 1984 Games

Tessa Sanderson claps her head, then tilts her head back, eyes closed before raising her hands, almost delighted to remember the javelin throw that wrote her name in the history books and confirmed her status as a true black sports pioneer.

The scene she describes is the 1984 Olympic Final in Los Angeles. Your big rival Fatima Whitbread had a decent opening performance. Now it's Tessa's turn.

"I just remember thinking, 'Please God, let it be right' and I just got in so fast because I was a speed shooter and all I thought was & # 39; # 39; Leg down, leg down, leg down 'as my trainer taught me. The spear was in such a perfect position. My whole body went through … It was heavenly, like, "Oh god, that was a fantastic shot. "There was a new Olympic record and I thought," Ok, you a lot. Hit that! & # 39; ".

Nobody could. Sanderson's first throw of 69.56m was enough to make her the first British black woman to win Olympic gold. She remains the only British female athlete to win an Olympic throwing event.

"Winning that Olympic gold medal was bigger than anything I have ever achieved … It was a wonderful feeling. I did it for myself, I did it for my family, for my coach, also for my country It is just a wonderful feeling ".

And to think it all started with a serving of chips.

"It was a bet I had between the girl who was better at throwing the spear in school and me. And it was all for a bag of chips, believe it or not. If she won or I won, I had to." someone buys the chips for the whole week. So of course I made sure I won tuck shop money. "

It earned her more than one post-workout snack. Tessa threw far enough to qualify for the English Schools Championships, and it put her on a career path that would lead her to a British record of six Olympics, one Olympic gold, three Commonwealth titles, and a CBE.

And no one could ever say that Tessa didn't deserve everything she achieved …

She was born in Jamaica and lived with her grandmother after the parents of her Windrush generation set out to find work in England.

Tessa didn't come to Wolverhampton until she was six and came to an unknown country after being warned, "It's so cold in the UK, if you touch your nose it will fall off." If that wasn't entirely true, there were still good reasons to be careful. "You were called the 'N' word and the symbol they had on the jam jars. I was spat at by a boy at school … my sister fought my fights for me … her sorted him out ".

1:19 Despite claiming Olympic gold for Britain in 1984, Sanderson received an anonymous racist letter saying she was not British

Despite claiming Olympic gold for Britain in 1984, Sanderson received an anonymous racist letter saying she was not British

Although there were tears at times, Tessa credits her parents for preparing them for the battles ahead. Even in 1984, after that Olympic triumph, it was her father who told her to put down the letter she received on her return from LA that said, "You won your gold medal. Fantastic. But you are black. They are not. " British and you will never be ".

Offensive correspondence wasn't the only thing Tessa struggled with after this historic victory. It didn't turn out to be the life changing event you might expect.

Although Olympic gold deserved its glory, it didn't pay the bills. Even as a longtime international athlete, Tessa had still worked full-time, but just weeks after that glorious night at the Colosseum she was unemployed and the business she worked for had gone into liquidation. "I had Olympic gold, no sponsorship money … what the hell should I do? Take the pieces and make things work."

2:17 Sanderson has called for greater diversity and inclusion on the governing bodies of the sport

Sanderson has called for greater diversity and inclusion on the governing bodies of the sport

For a while, she considered retiring from athletics. The javelin wasn't a Blue Riband event, there wasn't much money to be made in what was still an amateur sport. In addition, Tessa felt that other athletes were often treated better.

"I don't think it was a black thing. But then I accepted it because there wasn't much I could do. Black athletes didn't have the voice they have now, so I just had to fight my own battles."

Tessa believes the situation has improved since then and is encouraged by the reaction of black athletes calling for change following the police murder of George Floyd in America and subsequent protests against Black Lives Matter.

"A lot has changed now and the voice is there," she says. "I think it's so important to get together now. It gives everyone a voice to say, 'We don't want this'. It's the right time. It should have happened a long time ago. But now do they have the voice to do that. "

One place Tessa believes the voice isn't prominent enough just yet is on the governing bodies of the sport. She was named first president of Sport England in 1999, the first woman to take on the role. However, according to a recent report, only three percent of board members on UK sports governing bodies were from BAME, so Tessa's lack of representation is difficult to justify. "I think it's a total shame that so many black athletes have achieved so much for this country and we're still fighting to be in the boardroom. Why is that? I don't understand because we have the ability.

"We should be open about equality, we should look at the level black people are at. If the face fits, if you have the ability and you know what you are doing, the opportunity should be there."

1:00 Sanderson believes that social media can positively address the issue of racism and highlight the problems people face

Sanderson believes that social media can positively address the issue of racism and highlight the problems people face

The tenure as Vice Chairman of Sport England was just one of many roles Tessa has taken on since retiring from the competition after the 1997 World Cup.

She has worked as a sports presenter for Sky News, served as an after-dinner and motivational speaker and founded her own academy for aspiring young athletes in east London. She still has ambitions for more media work, she wants to be "the Oprah Winfrey of Great Britain".

Now, 36 years after that night in Los Angeles, she's showing no sign of easing. Her adopted eight-year-old twins keep her busy. With this in mind, she welcomes Black History Month and the crucial role of education, saying, "Black History Month is so important, but not just for a month.

"Even blacks themselves need to be educated about the wonderful things blacks have done."

Wonderful things like being the first black British woman to become an Olympic champion.

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Steven Gregory