Anita Neil, Britain’s first black woman Olympian: ‘I’m living my own history’
An exhibition on the pioneer sprinter in her home town of Wellingborough has been extended as a result of its popularity
“They’ve had a stream of people going in, which is marvellous,” she said. “A lot of people didn’t know anything about me and they’ll get to know that there’s an Olympian living here.”
By the time she was 15, Neil had left school and got a job in a clothing factory to support her family. She trained without an athletics track and was coached by her former PE teacher on her school’s football field.
When she was selected for the Olympics, it never occurred to her she was the first black woman to compete for Britain. “I just tried to blend in really,” she recalled.
And… did she win?
Not at the Olympics – but Neil netted a silver in the 4x100m at the 1970 Commonwealth Games, and three bronzes at the 1969 European Championships.
She wanted to compete at further Olympic events, but was forced to retire from athletics at just 23 after she had to focus on supporting her family, and her PE teacher was no longer able to coach her.
For years Neil kept her medals locked away, finding it too painful to think about her sporting achievements. But now she has been re-discovered and celebrated, things are different.
“I feel like I’m living my own history,” she told the BBC as the Wellingborough exhibition’s run was extended to September 2.
“Anybody who’s been the first pioneer, who’s done anything for the first time, who’s been influential or inspired others, it needs to be brought to the forefront. It needs to be recognised and documented to readdress the balance.”