It’s been nearly 49 years since Anita Neil last represented Great Britain at an Olympics; more than 40 years since she last gave an interview.
Britain’s first black female Olympian faded into obscurity, but not by choice.
The 70-year-old had wanted the world to know about the tough factory services while training for an Olympics, about sitting in Mexico’s Olympic Stadium while racial violence rained down on the salute of John Carlos and Tommie Smith in 1968, and how to be different. .
It’s been nearly 49 years since Anita Neil (above) last represented Great Britain at the Olympics
Seventy-year-old Neil spoke exclusively with Sportsmail to tell her remarkable story
Neil put himself down as a footnote in this country’s athletic history. It’s something that keeps hurting her
Neil has been reluctant – until now. ‘I don’t know why this (being Britain’s first black female Olympian) wasn’t brought up before,’ she says Sportsmail‘I have been ignored – no recognition, nothing.
‘I led the way, I opened the doors to black girls in athletics. At first I didn’t realize how important it was to be the first. ‘
After being rejected in 2012 when the Olympic torch arrived in Wellingborough – she is still the only Team GB athlete to come from the small town of Northamptonshire – Neil laid herself out as a footnote in this country’s track and field history. It’s something that keeps hurting her.
“That torch happened to pass through Wellingborough, where I live, and all I got was, ‘You can come to the council chambers and meet the torchbearers,’” says Neil.
I wanted to carry the torch to represent my international relay friends who have passed away: Lillian Board, Janet Simpson, Denise Ramsden and Donna Murray. They wouldn’t let me in.
‘They never answered me. I felt absolutely gutted. I am the only Olympic athlete in this city in all these years and this torch is coming to my city. I felt ignored. It was awful for me. ‘
The 70-year-old was part of the world record 4×100 meter relay team in 1968 (above)
Neil was part of a world record relay of 4×100 meters in 1968, won silver at the Commonwealth Games in 1970 and three bronze medals at the European Championship in 1969. But it is experiences outside of the track that have shaped her life.
The 100m sprinter was raised by single mother Florence with four siblings after her American sergeant father left when she was a baby.
After biting her fellow Northampton colleagues in long jump, 100m, relay and hurdles, coach and gym teacher Roger Beadsworth connected Neil with London Olympiads Athletics Club – Britain’s top female athlete club. It was a huge culture shock. “It was a different social class, financial class and educational,” says Neil.
“ I was the only mixed race athlete among them and felt a bit of an outsider at first. It seemed like they were in a very different class from me. ‘
Money was scarce, which meant that she often did her training on her own at the local rugby pitch. And if she ventured to the London club in the summer, Beadsworth would take her. Gasoline money was not an option.
Neil was part of a world record relay of 4×100 meters in 1968, won silver at the Commonwealth Games in 1970 and three bronze medals at the 1969 European Championship (above)
Neil made her Team GB debut the following year, 1966, at the age of 16 in the long jump in France. However, it is the memories of participating in the two most controversial Olympics of all time that remain strongest.
18-year-old Neil ran in the 100m and 4x100m relay at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico.
It was here that she witnessed a defining moment in Olympic history: the black power salute of 200m sprinters Smith and Carlos, who bowed their heads on the podium and each raised a gloved fist to protest racism in the US , while The Star-Spangled Banner bellowed.
The stadium came to a standstill before Neil was stunned by racist abuse from the stands. “Absolutely (I was saddened by the racist abuse), it was no fun,” recalls Neil. ‘It was unjust. But it has always been there, hasn’t it? You learn from an early age. With a black father and white mother, growing up in the 50s and 60s, even in this country, was sometimes difficult.
“Great Britain was not as biased as the US then, they (US) went through a lot in the 1960s.”
Neil’s voice fades and she pauses. It is not a comfortable area to dive into. She continues: ‘They (Smith and Carlos) were knocked down, that was the end of their careers. They sacrificed their careers to show what happened in the United States.
“In a sense it had to be said: who else would represent them?”
Aside from this historic protest, the sprinter vividly remembers the circumstances surrounding her own performance. And it includes five years of working in a garment factory. “I made it to the quarterfinals of the 100m, the final of the relay,” she says.
‘I was happy with my performance as I was training on a school field. I worked in a factory from the age of 15. I worked 36 hours a week and they released me early twice a week at 3pm to train.
‘You don’t have to do that now, athletes are paid nowadays. I never got a penny, nothing. It didn’t stop Neil from working towards qualifying for Munich 1972. She succeeded, but once again the Games were overshadowed by events off the track.
Neil sat in Mexico’s Olympic Stadium while racial abuse amounted to John Carlos and Tommie Smith’s black power salute (center) in 1968
Black September terrorists stormed the Olympic village in the second week to take 11 Israeli athletes and coaches hostage. Two were immediately shot and the other nine killed after being forced into a helicopter.
“It was terrible what happened, and also scary because it was in the village where we were,” she says. ‘We were told not to go on the balconies, not this or that.
“I saw the helicopter take off to take them to the airport. It was scary because you didn’t know if there were snipers. ‘
An interaction with one of the Israeli coaches had a special impact. “During practice the day before, an Israeli sprinter and her coach were behind me,” she says. And he patted me on the shoulder and said, “You two are running into each other this week.” And I said, “Yes, we will,” and he was killed the next day. ‘
Mother of one, Neil, is happy to see the progress society has made since she was a child
She reached the quarter-finals of the 100m and the final of the 4x100m relay. But after not winning a medal at both Olympics, Neil wanted one last hurray. Canada 1976 was in the offing, but circumstances conspired against her. She trained alone for 18 months and couldn’t afford to commute to any of the track meetings or trials.
Then she lost the services of her coach after his brother-in-law died in a skydiving. “I was devastated,” Neil recalls.
It was a blow she struggled to accept. After the Games, Neil went from job to job. Among other things, he worked as a payroll clerk and as a learning support assistant at primary school.
The mother of one of them is now retired and, aside from her own lack of recognition, Neil is encouraged to see the progress society has made since she was a child.
“They’re accepting more, more and more black people are coming,” she says. ‘When I was little, it was just me and my sister at school.
‘They are very lucky, it is now quite cosmopolitan. We are all as one, we all live together in this world. ‘