“If I said I wasn’t nervous I’d be lying,” Anyika Onuora suggests with a little smile in the front room of her mother’s house in Liverpool. We have known each other since I first interviewed Onuora in April 2017 and in the intervening years she has confidentially told me everything she is now about to share with the world. Onuora is an amusing and intelligent woman, full to the brim with life and laughter, but her story as a black female athlete is framed by haunting racism and sexual assault.
Her important and powerful new book, My Hidden Race, was published on Thursday. This is Onuora’s first interview about subjects we have discussed privately for so long and, suddenly, everything seems very real.
She is 37 and retired as a 400m sprinter in 2019, having won medals at the Olympic Games, the world championships, Commonwealth Games and European championships. Onuora is proud of her achievements and acknowledges the help she received. But she is intent on proving “you can’t brush things under a carpet for ever”. She is ready to talk about her experiences and the people she feels failed to support her and her black female teammates.
“I wanted to tell my story in my own words,” she says, “but I had to relive so much trauma. My mother is reading the book and it’s hard. I think part of her feels she failed as a parent. That’s sad and definitely not true.
“I’ve always been one of those resilient people who gets on and moves from the next race to the next competition. But below the surface I went through a lot – and I didn’t talk about that with her or anyone for a long time. For my mum to find out now about the sexual assault and attempted rape …”
Onuora shakes her head. The photographs on the wall capture a large Nigerian family at home in Liverpool. It is easy to feel the warmth and love before we return to harrowing days. Onuora’s parents emigrated from Nigeria and her early years were blissfully happy. But when the family moved to Dingle, two miles from where we sit now, racism almost broke them.
“These kids would spit at us, say the N-word and shout abuse,” Onuora says. “Then it started. Bricks came through the window. My parents were scared in case the next thing was bullets because we were terrorised.”
How many times were their windows broken? “In the beginning it was once a month and then every couple of weeks. The majority of the neighbours were OK and some were super-nice. But we were driven out when our car was firebombed.”
Onuora describes being with her father, who died in 2012, when he was stopped needlessly by the police at night. The officers backed off only when Onuora, aged 16, challenged them – to the horror of her stoical father. She then tells me how she heard her mother being racially abused as a nurse in a Liverpool hospital. “We suffered a lot of trauma,” she says, “but there’s been plenty of healing as well.”
Onuora soon confronts her reality as a black woman who ran for Great Britain for 18 years. “People say it doesn’t matter about race but it does because the majority of medal-winning athletes are black. I’m one of the few GB athletes of the past 20 years to achieve a full set of major medals. So it’s not about me bashing the federation – but conversations need to be had.”
After Onuora won bronze in the 4x400m relay at the 2015 world championships she noticed there was not a single black female face among all the athletes celebrated on posters at the High Performance Centre in Loughborough, where so many of the team trained. She approached Paula Dunn, the Paralympic team head coach and the only black person in authority at British Athletics.
Dunn arranged a meeting with UKA staff and Onuora says she was accused of wanting to make it about her. She pointed out she was not asking for her own face to be featured. Rather, she hoped some of her successful teammates could be celebrated at the HiPac and inspire young black athletes. It took a couple of years before the faces of young black women such as Morgan Lake and the 4x100m team made those walls. “It was like the complete erasure of black women,” Onuora says. “Walking into my place of work and seeing a sea of white faces didn’t make any sense.”
She had also been hurt when, at a team meeting, a sports psychologist asked two white female athletes: “How does it feel to be in a team surrounded by black girls?” Such incidents explain why Onuora found it so hard to turn to the organisation at painful times – as when she did a photoshoot for a global sponsor with the male white runner Sam Ellis. When the campaign was released Onuora had been photoshopped out and replaced by a white model.
Onuora moved to London to train with her friend Christine Ohuruogu, the former world and Olympic 400m champion. It was difficult to survive financially as a GB athlete, so she worked in 12 different jobs during her time in London. Most of these positions only became available after she changed her name. “I always sent my CV as Anyika Onuora and got rejected. I would then use a white name but leave my CV exactly the same. I’d send it off and half an hour later a call or email would offer an appointment or an interview. Then you turn up and there’s shock, horror on their faces.”
When she discussed these problems most white athletes refused to believe her. “I was fuming but I felt embarrassed for them. They didn’t have a clue how much we suffer as black people. They listened only when Dai Greene [the 400m hurdler] stepped in. Dai’s a nice, clued-up guy. He said: ‘Anyika’s right. You need to believe her.’”
On another occasion, while flying to a competition, Onuora was woken by the passenger next to her. He was licking her arm because he wanted to discover “how black girls taste”.
All these humiliations were stored inside as she felt unable to talk to anyone within her governing body. Onuora says: “The sport broke me.” Will action now be taken to help future athletes so they don’t suffer in silence? “I don’t think it’s in their best interests to ignore it, especially with the sexual assaults I incurred. I can speak about it now, but can you imagine all the other athletes, male and female, that might have been through the same thing?”
A spokesperson for UKA said: “We are hugely saddened to hear of the distressing experiences detailed by Anyika. It is essential athletes are supported to train and compete in environments free from prejudice and abuse. There have been significant changes to the approach, structure and culture within UKA following governance and safeguarding reviews in 2020.
“It is essential that anyone who has experienced or knows of any form of discrimination, harassment, abuse or bullying comes forward to tell us and to receive support and advice. No act is too small and it is vital all individuals can report issues regardless of when they may have happened.”
Onuora talks about surviving sexual assault. The first of these incidents occurred during physiotherapy. “I’d seen him once or twice before but he was not my regular physio. When it got to the third time he checked my groin. I was lying on my back on the treatment bed and he placed his hand on top of my vagina. I flinched. I was in shock because at the same time he was talking to me in medical language. But he kept applying pressure to my vagina. You just freeze. You don’t know what to say or do. He then carried on with the treatment.
“I asked not to see him again but sometimes no one else was available. The third time he got on top of me and I could feel his penis digging in my back. I was disgusted but terrified. It was so scary because I was turning up to get assaulted every single time. After that I would only see my regular physio or the female masseuse.”
Just as the young American gymnasts abused by Larry Nassar, their coach, were traumatised into silence, Onuora says she did not feel she would be believed ahead of a male medic. “I couldn’t tell anyone. Who’s going to believe me? A lot of abuse in sport is swept under the rug.”
Onuora tells how she just managed to fight off an attempted rape by a man whose identity she has not revealed in public. She has suffered distressing flashbacks and also had the ordeal of sometimes seeing The Sportsman, as she calls him, again. “I hit breaking point,” she says, “because it affected everything – my sleep, my performance, my skin. Everything was out of my control and I couldn’t say anything.”
Would she now consider legal action against The Sportsman? “I would be more than happy to. But then you look at the low rate of convictions [for rape] and, as horrific as my incident was, what’s the likely outcome? Someone said: ‘As Christians we are supposed to forgive and forget.’ I’m not obligated to do either because this person doesn’t even acknowledge the suffering they put me through.”
Onuora talks openly of the two occasions when she came close to taking her own life. In the Olympic village at London 2012, after Onuora ran badly, only the sudden appearance of her room-mate, Perri Shakes-Drayton, rescued her. The second time occurred after she was left out of the individual 400m selection for the Rio Olympics in 2016 – despite her winning what she considered to be “a race-off” for the third spot. Onuora was so upset she drove her car at 130mph, with the intention of smashing into a barrier, until she remembered her family and slowed to a stop.
She won a bronze medal in the relay at those Games, having also almost died from malaria 40 weeks before the Olympics. Yet she always felt like a “lyrca-clad cog in a medal machine”. Minutes before they stepped on to the track for the 4x400m relay final she overheard two senior officials at British Athletics. Onuora recalls one of the men saying: “I hope these girls are fucking ready. There’s 10 million quid in funding on the line if they don’t get a medal. They better fucking get this together.” She was not meant to hear these words, but they defined the surrounding culture.
Now, in contrast, Onuora seems at peace. She has a good job and completed a course in boardroom governance. Acutely aware of the need for black people at boardroom level she accepted an invitation to apply for a nonexecutive role at British Athletics – the commercial wing of UKA. “I did well in the interview in January. I didn’t get the role but I’m thankful for the experience. I said what I had to say and it was good Marilyn Okoro got it.
“But there has to be more black people on the board and more black coaches. You can’t rely just on Paula Dunn and Christian Malcolm. So I still do mentorship programmes for young girls, I still go into schools because I never had that growing up. I still want to be a catalyst for change.”
Could she be tempted to try again to make a difference at boardroom level in British athletics? Onuora sinks into her mum’s sofa and smiles. “‘Soft life’ is a phrase we use in the black community. As a black woman I’ve always been told to be resilient, to fight, to lead. I am strong but I’m tired.
“I did track and field for 20 years and I don’t want that any more. I want to live a soft life full of joyful moments. I once didn’t think I deserved those things, whereas I do now. It took me a long time to get to this place of freedom, and happiness, and I want that for the rest of my life.”
My Hidden Race by Anyika Onuora is published by Mirror Books In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is at 800-273-8255 or chat for support. You can also text HOME to 741741 to connect with a crisis text line counselor. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org