‘Sexual assault and racism nearly ruined my Olympic dreams’

Anyika Onuora had a glittering athletics career, winning Olympic, World, European and Commonwealth sprint and relay medals. But her path to success was beset by racism and two horrifying sexual assaults.

Here, the 37-year-old, who lives in London with boyfriend Rohan, shares her painful memories…

“In 2016, under the bright lights of the Rio stadium, I saw a sea of ​​waving Union flags and felt the noise building as I took my place for the Olympic 4x400m relay race.

My heart was thumping. I was running the second leg but as soon as I took the baton I felt curiously calm, concentrating on every step. Once I’d passed on the baton, I could barely watch as, with a final push, my teammate Christine Ohuruogu crossed the line in third place. Finally, after competing in three Olympics I’d won a medal!

The British crowd were cheering. I was ecstatic and didn’t want the moment to end.

Anyika was a celebrated British athlete

Over the years I’d suffered racism and been sexually assaulted twice. I’d even attempted suicide. But moments like this made me realise why I hadn’t given up on my Olympic dream.

I was born in Liverpool to Nigerian immigrant parents and my early childhood was blissfully happy. In 1995, when I was 10, my family moved to a house in the inner-city area of ​​Dingle and from our first day on the street, I felt the vicious hatred from a local gang of kids.

We were used to being the only black faces, but we’d never experienced such naked hatred. My siblings and I regularly heard racist insults. Our house provided target practice for the gang’s stones and bricks, and our windows were regularly smashed. We left the house for only two reasons: to go to school or church.

I was scared to fall asleep for fear the house would be attacked or rebombed. We left three years later, but I was damaged. However, I had discovered a passion to pursue. I’d always been fast – I’d inherited sporty genes and at sports days won all the races. I loved the feeling of freedom that running gave me.

Anyika and her big brother, Chiz, suffered racial abuse
Anyika and her big brother, Chiz, suffered racial abuse

Completely violated

A friend persuaded me to join the athletics club Liverpool Harriers, where my sprint training started.

My strong body developed through my teenage years. But although my muscles eventually helped me become a world-class runner, back then I hated my body.

Friends and family reassured me that I was beautiful. As my junior athletics trophy collection grew, I still didn’t like the way my body looked and chose to wear clothes that covered my legs and bum more effectively instead of the short regulation gym knickers.

At 16, I was one of the best sprinters in the country. I juggled my training with a degree in economics at Liverpool John Moores University, working shifts in a hotel to pay for training and physio. One day my regular physio wasn’t available and a replacement stepped in.

As he moved to my hip, he placed his hand directly on my vagina. He did it calmly while talking about my injuries. Then he climbed on to the treatment table and mounted me, saying that he needed to get more leverage to release tight muscles. I could feel his erect penis through his trousers on my body, and felt completely violated, but helpless. He knew that I wouldn’t or couldn’t complain, so I lay still in shock.

The talented sportswoman recounted her terrifying assault
The talented sportswoman recounted her terrifying assault

I was in tears that day and for many days afterwards but I never told anyone. I was young. Who were they going to believe, an athlete with no name or a respected physical therapist?

Then, years later, I was nearly raped by a fellow athlete. I was competing abroad and at a post-race banquet this sportsman was drinking a lot and kept asking me to dance. I politely said no. Later, as I got ready for bed I heard someone trying to open my door. The door knob initially rattled softly, then it was shaken aggressively.

In a few seconds, it was forced open by the athlete. I wasn’t scared; I was seriously annoyed. He told me he wouldn’t leave until I admitted I liked him. I refused and in a split second, he grabbed me aggressively. He had me on the bed, my wrists pinned above my head. He wrenched my underwear off. I went numb, crying uncontrollably. I told myself, “Just keep fighting, Anyika. Fight him.”

When he released his knee pinning down my right leg, I kicked as hard as I could and caught him in the genitals. He screamed and rolled off. I yelled at him to get out.

I never told anyone in British Athletics about the assaults. I never felt anyone would understand what I’d gone through. And I didn’t tell them about the racism I faced, either.

Anyika and her younger sister, Nkechi, taken at Morrison Primary School, aged nine
Anyika and her younger sister, Nkechi, taken at Morrison Primary School, aged nine

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I was followed in supermarkets across the world by staff, judged as a potential shoplifter due to my skin colour.

In Sardinia, warming up for a competition on the grass outside my hotel, I saw flashing blue lights. Two police officers said a neighbor called to say there was a Black girl trespassing on their property. I explained that I was competing in the stadium around the corner and showed them my accreditation. The officers apologised, but I was humiliated. The track was dominated by Black British athletes, but the boardroom was filled with white men in suits.

The need for change

Being able to run fast is a natural ability but it takes a lot of hard work to compete with athletes across the world. I had many amazing highs and plenty of low points.

Although I was placed, and won bronze, in the 4x400m relay at the 2016 Olympics, I was left out of the individual 400m places despite winning a race-off. As a result I contemplated suicide for the second time.

The first time had been when I messed up my heat at the 2012 London Olympics. The thought of my friends and family brought me back from the brink.

The Olympic medallist has written her autobiography
The Olympic medallist has written her autobiography

I retired from athletics in 2019 and am now working as a consultant for a global company. I still run, but these days I’m more likely to go roller skating or do aerial yoga.

I’m very proud of everything that I achieved as an athlete, but things need to change for young girls considering a career in athletics, especially Black girls who are perceived differently. They need someone who looks like them to help them navigate a difficult path and to avoid the experiences I had.

I’m still healing, but I have great family and friends. I’m looking forward to seeing what the future holds.”

  • My Hidden Race by Anyika Onuora (Mirror Books, £16.99) is on sale now. If you need someone to talk to, call Samaritans any time on 116 123

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