Tessa Sanderson exclusive interview: 'Some think if you’re over 50, you’re done. No forget it, we’re there to kick ass'

Tessa Sanderson
Now in her 60s, Tessa Sanderson is busier than ever Credit: Getty Images

This month's Telegraph Women's Sport supplement looks at the body image issues elite sportswomen have encountered during their careers - and in their retirement. The issue is available in Friday's paper, while all articles will feature in the coming days on our dedicated Women's Sport channel online. Today we start with the empowering figure of Tessa Sanderson. 

It is 35 years since Tessa Sanderson became the first Black British woman to win an Olympic gold medal.

She remembers every moment; the inner calm prior to her Olympic record-setting winning throw in the first round of the javelin final; nearly making a fool of herself by offering competition advice to bitter rival Fatima Whitbread; even the warm feeling of Daley Thompson’s congratulatory hug after he burst into her room the following morning, exclaiming “you did it, you old bat!”

She also, in stark contrast, remembers how she felt when her victory became the focus for racial hatred following her return from Los Angeles.

“I received a letter from someone writing to me saying I didn’t win for Britain,” Sanderson, 63, recalls. “It said, ‘Don’t think you’ve won your gold for Britain. You’re Black and this and that. You won for somewhere else, you didn’t win for us.’ I told my family. I got choked about it. But I thought what a stupid person, just a total idiot.”

Born in Jamaica, Sanderson arrived in Britain when she was six. Growing up in the Midlands she experienced racist abuse at school, called the N-word and “golliwog”. At home, things were hard, too. Sanderson’s father was a sheet-metal worker, her mother a hairdresser, with Sanderson herself juggling multiple jobs to make ends meet. It all contributed to her feeling “on top of the world” when Olympic glory finally arrived on Aug 6, 1984.

Sanderson said she had been 'to hell and back' to obtain her Olympic gold Credit: Getty Images

“I had been to hell and back to get there,” says Sanderson, who also overcame two years out with a ruptured Achilles beforehand.

Of the racial significance of her win, she adds: “I’ve always been proud of being Black, my colour, born to my parents. But the Black community in the UK made me feel so extra proud. I’d done it for the UK because, first and foremost, that’s where I lived. But I’d also done it for Jamaica, too.

“In those days, there was still a lot of racism going on, there were still people trying to find their way. The community had taken me in and I’d carried them on my back now.

“It made me realise even more about young Black people, about making sure they have confidence to go forward.”

Now in her 60s she is busier than ever, balancing charitable and media work plus a new career as an older model. She has become a mother too, after adopting twins Cassius and Ruby Mae, now six, with her husband, Densign, a former Olympic judo player, while her latest venture will see her pushed to her very limits as she takes part in the Channel 4's new series Sink or Swim in support of Stand Up To Cancer, the culmination of which will see the remaining celebrities attempt to swim the English Channel.

“Some think that if you’re over 50, you’re done. No forget it, we’re there to kick ass.” 

Sanderson celebrates with her gold medal at the 1984 Olympic Games Credit:  Popperfoto

Given societal changes since the Eighties, it is interesting to hear six-time Olympian Sanderson’s view on whether she sometimes wishes she was an athlete now. She shakes her head. “I’m glad I won Olympic gold then, I had a purpose to fulfil and I fulfilled it by winning,” she states.

Still, she is frank about the barriers sportswomen had to contend with at the time. “The opportunities for women to compete and to be in the same light as men – although Fatima and I were throwing like hell at world level – was so different. We had to come out of this barrel,” she said.

“It didn’t matter what you did, it was as though women must take a back seat. We had to fight for it. You got prize money but it was chicken, not much at all.

“It’s changed a lot now. It’s had a massive foot forward. Paula Radcliffe winning marathons, Kelly Holmes doing her bit. Jess Ennis-Hill is a beauty, inside and out. It’s taking on board that we are strong, we work hard, we fight hard. I feel a lot more comfortable this is happening. It means a lot to women.”

To illustrate her point, Sanderson describes how three weeks after her Olympic success, she found herself jobless after the company she was working for went into liquidation. “A gold medal, no major sponsorship and no job,” as she puts it.

The response in the following years was to go on an image-building exercise after people advised creating an identity around her gold medal.

“People told me to go and give talks, I did,” she says. “I got the curlers out, started straightening my hair, looked at make-up. Beauty in a different way.

“Even back then, people were still thinking the javelin and field eventers were not like the beauty of track. It was very wrong. When it came to winning competitions, a lot of us throwers were saving the British team when the track eventers were bombing out.”

Sanderson says javelin throwing is a beautiful event Credit: Getty Images

Sanderson was cashing in on her success while she could, a tactic that is just as prevalent among today’s modern sporting stars.

Yet how did she feel about changing her image, seemingly pressured to do so as a result of limitations for both women in sport and her chosen discipline? “It wasn’t changing my personality. I looked different but I was very comfortable with that change,” she responds. “It didn’t matter how I looked, first and foremost I always thought I was a woman. If the times were moving I wanted to move with the times.

“The different hair, fashions and styles were coming in, I wanted to have those. When straightened hair came in, I was like ‘yes I want that’. When people started introducing a lot of Bobbi Brown make up and Black make up, I was ‘let’s get it right’.”

Tessa Sanderson shared a legendary rivalry with Fatima Whitbread Credit: Popperfoto

Sanderson was once confused for a sprinter at her first Olympics in 1976, she holds herself up as an example to girls that being a thrower can be just as attractive as someone on the track.

“Javelin throwing is a beautiful event. You get it right, it feels great and like you’ve achieved,” she says. “There’s nothing wrong with being a javelin thrower. You don’t have to be bulky and like a bodybuilder or the incredible hulk or anything like that. I proved that. It’s about timing, flexibility and the technique. I was strong but I still felt feminine.”

Remarkably, Sanderson remains the only British thrower, male or female, to win an Olympic title. According to her, unless a fresh approach to coaching young talent is taken, and the experience of previous champions like herself is harnessed, it will be a 35-year wait for another.

Sanderson with her husband Densign and twins Ruby Mae and Cassius Credit: Rex

And all the time the going drought only serves to highlight just how underappreciated the British battle royal between Sanderson and rival Whitbread was.

“Seb [Coe] and Steve [Ovett] had their rivalry but it was nothing like this. It was the rivalry of history,” says Sanderson.

Battle lines were drawn, opposing camps established. In one corner, Sanderson. The other, Whitbread, marked by her own tough beginnings and guided by her adoptive mother and national coach Margaret, plus controversial British Athletics promoter and agent – latterly turned lover and husband – Andy Norman.

Sanderson insists they started off as “really good friends” before “the competition got to Whitbread’s head and her family’s head. It was about kicking her ass and forgetting everything else. It became not friendly any more”.

Yet, in the 1984 Olympic final, a momentary letting-down-of-the-guard, whether in the name of patriotism, or solidarity among field eventers, could have nearly cost Sanderson glory.

“I actually went up to Fats midway through when I was leading after my first throw and said, ‘Get your leg in, drive your leg in and shoulder in’,” she recalls. “I was a b----- fool, because she could have whooped my ass. But it was that team spirit thing. She came in, hit it and got bronze. She never said thank-you. It didn’t bother me.

“On the podium, she sort of pinched my cheek. I hate that photograph. She said well done. But all I could think of was, you went into the Games, second in the world, I was ranked fourth, I’d been through hell and back and I’d won.”

Sanderson, winner of Olympic and three Commonwealth golds to Whitbread’s World and European titles, is, however, not ashamed of acknowledging what their acrimonious relationship did for her career. “The rivalry was one of the best things when you look at it now. It drove me to another level. It made me want to beat her every time. It’s calmer now. I respect her and I hope she respects me.”

 

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