Anyika Onuora: ‘I will never be able to outrun the demons in my mind’

In her new memoir, the former GB athlete tells of sexual assault, racial abuse and attempted suicide, all while competing for her country. It was a privilege to help her tell her story, writes Jonathan Drennan

Anyika Onuora was once one of the fastest women in the world. She competed in three Olympic Games, winning bronze in the 4x400 metres relay in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. Born in Liverpool to Nigerian migrant parents, she has stood on podiums across the world at every major championship, beaming for the cameras and waving to capacity crowds.

Her physical strength on the track was well known, and her ability to keep running through the pain barrier was almost unrivalled. Her career ended in 2019 just before the Tokyo Olympics, and she started to think about her life. Then the pain really began. Pain that she couldn’t quell with tape and training. The memories of medals faded and the realisation of a life dealing with discrimination, racism and sexual assaults haunted her.

Onuora was a professional athlete for nearly 20 years. She had seen the sacrifice her parents had made for her and the racism they had encountered on the streets of Liverpool. She had experienced it too as a young girl. Most days walking to school, racial insults were spat at her. She tried to ignore the cruel words and take the higher ground, just like her parents had done. When the family car was firebombed by a racist gang she became an insomniac, sitting outside her parents’ room, only drifting off to a fitful sleep in the corridor when she heard her mother snoring.

She found a refuge on the running track. She had heard insults about her body and hair, being called “Medusa” in the playground. She applied a scorching hot comb to her hair, to coax it straight to fit in with her classmates. When she competed as a schoolgirl, she ran in a long hockey skirt to cover the natural curves of her body. She learned how to stay in the background and not draw attention to herself. It was preferable to being mocked. Then, when the starter pistol sounded, she ran and felt free.


Two years ago, I was asked to help write Onuora’s autobiography. Initially, I politely refused. I was a 34-year-old white male from Belfast with little interest in athletics. An Olympic bronze medal is a huge success for anyone, but how would it fight its way through a crowded market of sports books? Then I met Onuora, and recognised that this book was far bigger than her chosen sport. It was a story of survival.

Onuora and I spoke over Zoom several nights a week for two years. I was living in Sydney, she was in Liverpool. Our interviews rarely lasted less than three hours. We didn’t have a publishing deal, an agent, or any guarantees that the story would be published. We kept working, hoping her bravery would result in a good manuscript.

The opening sets the scene for what is an unflinching testimony of being a black professional athlete in a ruthless world. “I have seen and experienced things as a British athlete that haunt me during the day and the night. No matter how hard I try, I will never be able to outrun the demons in my mind. I have been brutally sexually assaulted, experienced frequent racist abuse and attempted suicide twice. All of this happened while I was competing for my country,” she writes.

“Everything I wanted to say, it’s in the book,” she told me recently. “So much of what had happened to me had been suppressed. I didn’t think that I could talk about some of the incidents in my life. I would talk about it, and then I’d wonder, did I really go through this? I couldn’t sleep many times after our interviews. I am not going to hold back on things to protect people anymore. That time is gone.”

From a young age, Onuora was selected to represent Great Britain. Her mother would call relatives across Nigeria, telling them that her girl was taking on the world. As a young athlete, Onuora juggled her time as an economics student at university with a heavy training load on the track.

In the book, she tells the story for the first time of how the man she entrusted with nursing her body back to health sexually assaulted her several times. The complex medical jargon he used initially caused her to doubt herself. “How many young female athletes at every level of sport have been sexually assaulted by a medical practitioner they trusted? When you are young and filled with dreams as an athlete, you are at your most vulnerable. Your job is to perform and conform,” she writes in the book.

Onuora never felt she had anybody to talk to at a leadership level who could relate to her experiences with this man, or about the racism she had faced as a child and as an athlete. At an athletics event in Italy, she was stretching outside a stadium in her tracksuit and was confronted by the police who asked her why she was loitering. In South Africa, she was asked in a restaurant why she wasn’t serving the food. In China, she was ignored by a rank of taxi drivers who refused to pick her up, while stopping for white tourists.

Onuora became an expert at compartmentalising the most painful aspects of her life. On the track, she was renowned for her professionalism and dedication. Detail mattered and she did everything possible to improve her performance. Away from it, she struggled to find answers for her pain. At an athletics event, she fought off a man who was attempting to rape her in her hotel room, a sportsman she trusted and knew. It haunted her for the rest of her career.

“I take a shower to calm myself down. The water is scalding hot and I rub soap on my body furiously as if I can cleanse it from rape. I know that no amount of soap will wipe clean the memory of what has happened. I have been surrounded by male friends my whole life and have enjoyed their banter and friendship. When I least suspected it, I was attacked,” she writes.

Onuora talks about feeling like a “lycra-clad cog in a machine” during her athletics career. Her feelings don’t matter. What she has experienced off the track is of no consequence. Her job was to win medals that kept the fires burning in a huge organisation. Largely, she succeeded. She won medals at the European and World Championships, and the Olympics. She competed in front of sold-out stadiums, yet gained little financial freedom from her success. She served tables across London and worked long hours in call centres to fund her training and medical needs.

In her own words, when your whole life is dedicated to running on a track to the beep of a stopwatch, you lose perspective. In London 2012, while competing for her country in front of cheering crowds, she was quickly and unceremoniously knocked out in the heats. She had failed to perform on the biggest stage in front of family and friends, a crushing disappointment that led to a failed suicide attempt in the Olympic Village.

Onuora learned how to cry in the showers while competing. She stayed in cheap hotels and never wanted to disturb her roommate through the thin walls. She knew she would be monitored as soon as she left that bathroom. Her life was defined by a stopwatch and graphs. Her body was prodded and poked by scientists who told her what to eat and what to drink. She was losing control of herself.

At the peak of her career, her body and mind started to break down. “I numbed the pain with cheap red wine. Drinking alcohol when depressed is like trying to put out a fire with ethanol. It will cause even greater heartache and destruction. I would wake up late in the day with a pounding headache and often an empty bottle of wine would be by my bedside table,” she says.

She also nearly died of malaria just before the Olympic Games in 2016. In the book, the helpless patient contrasts strongly with the public image of a medal winner.

“The Congolese nurse holds my hand and softly tells me that I’m not going to die on her watch. I lie on a bed of ice, completely helpless, surrounded by a soaking wet floor, and choose to believe her. I have built a career based on my physical strength and conditioning, now I am dependent on the skill of the medical professionals at St John and St Elizabeth hospital in north London to keep me alive.”

She recovered from malaria but had to move back in with her mother in Liverpool to learn how to walk again, months before the Olympic Games in Rio. Almost nobody knew. She learned how to jog in her back garden, and months later stood on an Olympic podium in Brazil.

The love and support of her Nigerian family and community continue to carry her through tough days. She has a strong connection to her family in Nigeria, forged while briefly living in her father’s ancestral village in the Kingdom of Nri as a child. Traditions matter, and she was told by her parents to believe in her beauty and strength as a black woman.

Onuora started to question the sport that she dedicated her entire life to. Race directors would proposition attractive female athletes with the promise of a lane in their event if they slept with them. A sportswear company asked her to model their new range of clothing; she stood for hours for a photographer with a white teammate. Months later, she opened the catalogue to find she has been replaced by a white model who had never laced up a pair of spikes; her teammate’s photos were untouched.

“How many times have I seen a talented athlete left with a basic shoe contract, while a perceived more physically attractive runner, with less talent, is emblazoned across catalogues and posters? You realise to succeed, you are meant not to just run fast, you are expected to look good doing it. I know women who have been told to wear shorter and tighter clothing at events by race directors. Athletics is a man’s world and the rules are dictated by them in polished boardrooms far from the tracks we toil on,” she says.

Onuora spent childhood nights with her father huddled in their living room cheering on her favourite athletes on television. She dreamed of stepping into their shoes as an Olympian. She went on to win medals at every major event possible, becoming one of the fastest women in the world. But she struggled to outrun those demons in her mind.

Onuora wanted her book to not just be about athletics, or sport, but to tell the story of a black woman who had fought against all odds to achieve her dream.

“It doesn’t matter where you are from, but I want you to take something from my story and be able to relate to it. Whether you are a teacher or an office worker. A child. It doesn’t matter. There are lessons to learn in any walk of life. Please never give up. The title itself is important, ‘My Hidden Race’. I want people to know what goes on far from the cameras as an athlete. It’s not all medals and success. There is a severe struggle.”

My Hidden Race by Anyika Onuora is published by Mirror Books.

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