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“All I know most surely about morality and obligation I owe to football”,

Albert Camus

My hidden race

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Anyika Onuora, Liverpool, Mirror, 2022 ISBN 9781913406790

“I have been brutally sexually assaulted, experienced racial abuse and have attempted suicide twice. All this happened while I was competing for my country”. Anyika Onuora’s autobiography is not an easy read.

The strongest part of the book is her insight into the life of the professional athlete, outside the UKA funding structures. She refers to doing 12 different jobs to support herself in London and describes her early career: “I was also juggling my academic and track work with demanding daily shifts in the Moat House Hotel to pay for all my physio, international trips and equipment. I had three separate plates spinning quickly; university, my job and athletics. Any one of them could crash down at any moment”. She describes the battles to survive and tells a story of bursting into tears on a bus asking herself if a career in athletics was worth it.

Her account of participating in the 2012 London Olympics is poignantly written, running 0.23 seconds slower than her best and not making the Olympic semi-final. “I don’t understand what’s gone wrong; I simply didn’t perform on the biggest stage… I had dedicated everything to this life and had been quickly knocked out.” Yet the other side of the story was “to even get to the Olympics when you are pulling late-night waitressing shifts, flogging broadband packages and coaching kids on no funding, was a miracle”.

Racism is a running theme throughout the book from her experiences growing up in Liverpool, graphically described – “I was sick of being the black girl in a world of white people”, attacks on the family home, seeing her father stopped by traffic police and insulted for being black, to being followed around shops by security as a potential shop-lifter.

She paints UK Athletics as a racist organization with little or no black representation at senior management or board level. Posts of elite athletes tended to be of the white ones. She refers to a meeting where a UKA sports psychologist “asked the two white members of our team a question. ‘How does it feel to be white in a team surrounded by black girls?’” She describes herself as “walking on a tightrope made out of dental floss”. You felt that if you exposed the racism, it would be held against you in the next funding decision.

Her account of an attempted rape by a fellow athlete, whom she continued to see at events, is disturbing but begs the question why she chose to reveal it in her book rather than to the relevant authorities, at the time or subsequently?

She was coached for part of her career by Rana Reider, whom she portrays as a brilliant technical coach, a difficult individual and as money-grabbing. “Although Rana could change an athlete’s life through his technical expertise, he would never win them over with charm and diplomacy. He was as subtle as a cold slap in the face”. Rana is known to have created a culture around female athletes that many found unhealthy. The book surprisingly makes no reference to this.

The author makes a few references to the “strong Christian faith that was passed down to me and all of my siblings, and perhaps they [her parents] felt that, through grace, we could somehow weather this storm. We were taught that on the cross, Jesus said: ‘Forgive father for they do not know what they do’.

It is hard to sum up the book. Her experiences are disturbing. At the same time there are some incidents where her account is challenged by others who were directly involved. In places her account seems one-sided. And as already stated there are questions about why she kept incidents from the competent authorities and then included them in her book.

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