Why Ellis Genge, Katarina Johnson-Thompson & Jadon Sancho are an inspiration

“I want people to see this and realise if you are young, black and British you can 100% excel in whatever lane you want.”

Those are the words of UK grime artist Stormzy who was on the cover of Elle magazine this week.

The 25-year-old was joined by a host of other young, black and influential stars including athletes Dina Asher-Smith, Joshua Buatsi and Wilfried Zaha.

Being 19 and from a mixed race background myself, I thought Stormzy’s Elle magazine cover was incredible.

In the words of Stormzy: “This country [has a history of] reducing young black British men and women, but we’re a whole spectrum of incredible things – and we’re on a mission to show that to the world.”

I totally agree.

Manchester City winger Raheem Sterling encapsulated it perfectly with his Instagram post late last year.

He highlighted the negative press that young black footballers receive compared to white players, with the post coming after the 24-year-old was the victim of alleged racial abuse by a fan at Chelsea in December.

It’s a shame the discussion on how we portray young black people in the news only became a mainstream issue after Sterling’s post.

So, after Stormzy chose Asher-Smith, Buatsi and Zaha as his three most inspirational athletes in the UK, it got me thinking about which other emerging BAME stars inspire me:

Ellis Genge, rugby player

Ellis Genge has scored six tries for Leicester in 51 appearances

Leicester Tigers and England prop Ellis Genge’s interview with The Mail on Sunday in December struck a real chord with me.

“When I was 16, 17, 18, I never made any of the age-group teams,” he said. “I feel that’s because my face didn’t fit. I’m not white middle class, I’m working class. I don’t want to put it down to race – I don’t think it’s about that – but I’ll put it down to culture.”

My distinct lack of footballing ability growing up steered me in the direction of playing rugby union, but one thing that became obvious quite quickly growing up in the Midlands was that the sport was very middle class and very white.

It was often the case that I was the only player on the field who wasn’t white which would sometimes lead to racist abuse from opposition players.

My reaction was similar to Sterling’s – “you just have to laugh,” the England international said. That is the same thing my dad taught me growing up.

That was when it became clear that maybe it isn’t a game for me and something I can’t progress further in. I wasn’t white and I didn’t go to private school: my face didn’t fit in.

That’s why it is incredible to see Ellis Genge break that mould. He grew up on a council estate in Bristol but is now one of England’s top prospects.

For me, it’s breath of fresh air, not only to see him doing so well on the pitch, but also to hear him talk so openly about his experiences of trying to break through.

Katarina Johnson-Thompson, heptathlete

Katarina Johnson-Thompson was a 2009 world youth champion

It feels as if Katarina Johnson-Thompson has been a household name for ages.

However, the 25-year-old only won her first major titles in 2018, clinching world indoor pentathlon and Commonwealth heptathlon gold.

For a long time there was a lot of pressure on KJT to perform, after being in the shadow of one of Team GB’s greatest athletes: Dame Jessica Ennis-Hill.

People had started to doubt whether she would ever deliver on her potential, which must have been so tough for her to deal with, but her 2018 performances have quietened a lot of that talk.

Rising to the challenge can be hard, but she made some difficult choices – to move abroad to train, for example. That dedication is really inspiring for me.

I think a lot of young people can be quick to give up on their goals when others begin to doubt your ability and it’s especially hard when you don’t see people who look like you ‘making it’ in that industry.

It’s something I can relate to with my career in journalism. At the age of 19, people do have a lot of doubt in your ability to produce content and, as BBC reporter Hugh Woozencroft mentioned in his article last month, there aren’t many people who look like me in the industry.

I hope the on-track successes of stars like KJT and Dina Asher-Smith empower more young black talent from all across the UK to strive for success in whatever they do and that they have more role models to look up to and one day emulate.

Jadon Sancho, footballer

The winger’s decision to swap Manchester City for Borussia Dortmund at 17 has been well documented, and Sancho has been tearing up the Bundesliga ever since.

Many thought Sancho’s choice to leave England and move to a foreign country in search of first-team football was a risk, but for me it has been amazing to see a young black player have the self-belief to step out of his comfort zone and achieve his goals.

Since joining Dortmund, Sancho has scored seven goals in 29 games, has played in the Champions League and won his first full England cap – fully justifying the decision.

Sancho has blazed a trail which other rising stars are now keen to follow. Arsenal’s Reiss Nelson has performed well on loan at Hoffenheim and Callum Hudson-Odoi is being heavily linked with a move from Chelsea to Bayern Munich.

It’s not just black players that are following in Sancho’s path, though – he has broken down the barrier for young footballers in general.

Young footballers are realising they don’t necessarily have to wait years for their chance. They can play top-level football in their teenage years elsewhere if their current club doesn’t want them.

Nineteen-year-old Brahim Diaz made his move from Manchester City to Real Madrid this month.

It shows how important knowing your worth is, as well as having the drive to actually achieve what you set out to do.

As daunting as it would be to move to another country, it’s all about taking the opportunity and doing what is best for you at that time – something which I feel is slowly becoming a way of life for young people, especially those from diverse communities where the opportunities are slowly becoming more readily available.

It’s amazing to see people know where they want to end up and start running with the chances they get.

Hopefully the aforementioned athletes achieve everything they set out to do and instead of the country reducing young black people we highlight their talent and celebrate their accolades.

First Published 12.01.19: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/46825022

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