Olympic medallist Anyika Onuora has bravely shared her experiences of living with racism – even revealing how her family’s car was targeted in a frightening ‘firebomb’ attack.
Retired athlete Anyika, 36, had a glittering career on the track, winning gold in the 4 x 400 metres relay at the European Championships in Amsterdam in 2016. Just weeks later she was handed a bronze medal in the 4×400 metres relay at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
Yet despite her successes, Liverpool-born Anyika says that behind the scenes she experienced the ‘brutal reality’ of life as a Black female athlete growing up in Merseyside in the 1990s.
This week she spoke movingly at a webinar organised by Liverpool Hope University as part of Black History Month.
And Anyika – who launches her autobiography My Hidden Race in March next year – candidly outlined some of the terrifying instances of racism she and her family have suffered.
She told an audience at Hope: “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’”.
Anyika comes from a distinguished sporting family. Her brother Iffy Onuora is a former professional footballer and manager who scored 117 professional goals, while sibling Emy Onuora is a respected Race Equality Project Manager and author of best-selling book Pitch Black: The Story of Black British Footballers.
And speaking at the webinar, organised by Hope’s Dr. Wendy Coxshall, Lecturer in Social Sciences, Anyika 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 ten 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.”
Anyika – host of the successful Hidden Greatness podcast – ultimately began breaking running records at her school and joined the Liverpool Harriers athletics club.
Gifted academically, Anyika also completed a Degree in Economics before joining Team GB as a professional athlete. She’s now working as an Advisory Consultant for the multinational professional services firm EY.
And despite being surrounded by other Black athletes on the track, elite competition didn’t insulate Anyika 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.
Anyika, an ambassador for the charity Malaria No More UK, 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 Christian Malcolm, Head Coach of the British Athletics Olympic Programme – to act as mentors for young athletes.
But there’s still ‘work to do’ to combat everyday racism at a national level – and Anyika is worried that perceptions still haven’t changed despite the seismic events surrounding the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery in America that led to a global race reckoning.
Anyika argues: “The Black Lives Matter movement can be seen as ‘performative action’. If you look at the situation a year ago, there was a global uprising. Everyone wanted to get onto the streets and march.
“And then, when it came to Black History Month, we saw all of these companies and organisations changing their stance. A year later, everything has gone quiet. There’s no consistency whatsoever.
“I have friends who were invited to speak at events, on big platforms, but a year later the same organisations not only did not acknowledge Black History Month but they refused to do it. Would you have the same thought process if it was International Women’s Day?
“It’s down to us as a society to have these discussions so we’re able to learn about people of colour, people from different cultures and people with different values.
“Without me getting on my soapbox, the way the Government has dealt with the situation in regards to race hasn’t helped – at all.
“The way they were slow to respond to Black Lives Matter last year, the way the Government wanted to protect statues that were being pulled down. So, you’d rather value statues than human life? That says a lot about society and the people who lead the country. What example are you setting for the future here?”
The abuse suffered by footballers Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho, and Bukayo Sako in the wake of their missed penalty kicks for England in the Euro 2020 Final was also a ‘heartbreaking’ symptom of racism in the UK, says Anyika.
As a Black person, once those penalties were being taken, you already knew what was going to play out with the Black players taking them.
I actually remember turning the TV off before the match had even finished because I knew what was going to happen afterwards if we didn’t win. It was so heartbreaking to see.
People don’t understand.
No, it’s not everyone who is racist or who says all of these things on social media. But it is a societal issue. Racism isn’t going away. But there are changes we can make as individuals.
** Anyika’s autobiography My Hidden Race is due for publication on 31st March 2022.
Written by: Liverpool Hope University