Former sprinter Anyika Onuora talks about problems on the athletics circuit and on Merseyside when growing up in her forthcoming autobiography
Olympic medallist Anyika Onuora has bravely shared her experiences of living with racism – even revealing how her family’s car was targeted in a firebomb attack.
The 36-year-old won gold in the 4x400m at the European Championships in Amsterdam in 2016 and a few weeks later earned bronze in the 4x400m at the 2016 Olympics in Rio.
Yet despite her successes, Liverpool-born Onuora says that behind the scenes she experienced the ‘brutal reality’ of life as a black female athlete growing up in Merseyside in the 1990s.
In recent days she spoke movingly at a webinar organised by Liverpool Hope University as part of Black History Month.
And Onuora – who launches her autobiography My Hidden Race in March – outlined some of the terrifying instances of racism she and her family have suffered.
She told the audience: “We moved to the Dingle area of Liverpool as a family when I was younger. And Dingle in the 90s was … a very difficult area.
“We were there for around three or four years. And we encountered racist abuse pretty much every week. It wasn’t so much grown adults, it was more teenage kids, a similar age to me at the time, who just wanted to cause havoc.
“Because we were the only black family within the area, we were always the target. We weren’t allowed to play out, eggs would get smashed on the windows, or bricks would come through the window.
“Then there was stuff put through the letterbox. We got robbed, the car got stolen and they basically put a firebomb in the car. Things were getting really dangerous just to even live and exist in that area, so we had to move.
“I was aged between 11 and 14 and it was very difficult to navigate life when you’re having to deal with this constant racist abuse. That was the first time I really realised, ‘Oh, you are black, and people are always going to be able to point that out’.”
Onuora comes from a distinguished sporting family. Her brother Iffy Onuora is a former professional footballer and manager, while sibling Emy Onuora is a race equality project manager and author of Pitch Black: The Story of Black British Footballers.
And speaking at the webinar, organised by Hope’s Dr Wendy Coxshall, lecturer in social sciences, Onuora added: “What I loved about my parents and family life is that my mum and dad always told us, ‘Unfortunately you’re going to have to work 10 times as hard to even get close to your white counterparts. But that should not deter you from what you want to do in life’. That’s why my work ethic is so strong, from what my parents instilled in me from day one.”
Onuora, who is also host of the Hidden Greatness podcast, began breaking running records at her school and joined Liverpool Harriers. Gifted academically, she completed a degree in economics before becoming a professional athlete. She’s now working as an advisory consultant for multinational professional services firm EY.
And despite being surrounded by other clack athletes on the track, elite competition didn’t insulate Onuora from race-related trauma. She explained: “It’s naive to think that because athletics is a mixed sport we don’t encounter racism – because we do.
“There have been times where I’ve travelled to Eastern Europe to compete and I’ve been stopped at border control and held in a room, where they’re asking you, ‘What are you doing here?’ When you tell them, ‘I’m here to compete’, they’d say, ‘No, what are you really doing here?’ You literally have to show them your documentation or call your agent, or you have to call the meet director to ask them to tell border control why you’re in the country.
“If this was a white person, can you say they’d encounter the same things? Probably not. It’s those little things that were really hard for me. And that’s why having a core group of other black athletes around me was really important.
“We were able to sit there and have our shared experiences and talk about them together because when you’re going away to compete, you’re focused solely on a race. Now, before you’ve even got the track, you’re having to encounter awful incidents where you’re being chastised literally because you have a different skin colour to everyone else.”
Onuora admits she’s starting to see positive changes to the make-up of British athletics, particularly when it comes to having more black role models and managers – such as Olympic head coach Christian Malcolm – to act as mentors for young athletes.