Helen Grant exclusive interview: From being bullied to being Sports Minister

She first turned to sport as a schoolgirl, learning judo to fight back against the local racists. Now the main task of her new job is to protect the Olympic Legacy

Any of the more macho elements in sport who think the new minister is a soft touch because she is a woman are in for a shock. Helen Grant is more than capable of fighting her corner, as she demonstrated during her upbringing as the only black kid on a council estate in Carlisle by taking up judo to help defend herself against racist abuse.

"It was in the sixties," she recalls. "For a while I was the only person there with a darker skin. There was prejudice and bullying. But I dealt with it. I was seven or eight and I went into judo to defend myself thinking, 'well, if they see I'm good at it they won't pick a fight'."

The message was duly absorbed, as she did become good enough – to be an under-16 champion for the north of England and southern Scotland. At school she was captain of the tennis and hockey teams, and represented Cumbria in hockey, tennis, athletics and cross-country.

After studying law at the University of Hull, she went on to become a solicitor, an MP and now, at 52, a surprise appointment as Minister for Sport following Hugh Robertson's elevation to the Foreign Ministry. "A dream come true," is how she describes last week's summons to 10 Downing Street.

So why did the Prime Minister give her the job? "You'll probably have to ask him but I know he was aware of my passion for sport because we have discussed it many times. And he obviously thought I would be a good advocate for it. My aspiration was always to be an Olympic judo champion but in the end I became a lawyer and got into politics. However, sport has never left me. It is very much in my DNA.

"It gave me time to think and insulated myself from the idiots I had to deal with when I was growing up and at school. It was the thing that gave me self-confidence and self-esteem."

And she clearly has that in abundance. A vivacious mother of two strapping sons – Ben, a Royal Marine commando, and rugby-playing Joel, about to go to university – her appointment as only the second female and first black custodian of the games we play seems a predictably politically correct gamble by David Cameron. But it is also a potentially exciting one – if she proves up to the job. Her background confirms she is very much the sporty type, but the question is whether she knows anything about it. Or more pertinently, its governance.

The Conservative Party's first black female MP has yet to lock horns with the blazerati but insists she is relishing the prospect of pickling up the baton from Robertson, whom she describes as " a dear friend".

They have neighbouring constituencies in Kent so it would be no surprise if Robertson had recommended her for the job. Someone must have, because as far as sport is concerned she is unknown. But not for long, one suspects.

Her appointment comes from left field. Literally so, as she was once a Labour party member but switched to the Tories in 2006, saying: "It was almost looking in the biscuit barrel, not liking the look of the biscuits, and slamming the lid shut."

She was parachuted into Ann Widdecombe's safe seat in Maidstone ahead of the 2010 General Election and last year was made parliamentary under-secretary of state for justice, women and equality.

Born in London to an English mother and Nigerian father, when her parents separated she grew up with her mother in a single-parent family as the only black resident on Carlisle's Raffles estate for much of that troubled early childhood where sport she says, "made me a winner".

Now she must win over sport itself. "Already I can see there is lots to do in sustaining the legacy of 2012 both for sport and the economy."

Naturally, the continuing advancement of women's sport is high on her agenda. She praises the Independent on Sunday's pledge to promote it. "It's wonderful because there has to be more media coverage. There's lots more to do. We need to shape sport to make it attractive to women, particularly young women."

She wants to see a greater female presence on governing bodies and administration "though things do seem to be progressing there".

Quite so. Her new role means that with the Culture Secretary, Maria Miller, as her boss at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, the Westminster governance of sport is now very much a women's world. Elsewhere, the glass ceiling is splintering, she says, but there's still a way to go. "I still think there are chauvinistic attitudes, not just in football but a number of areas. We want people to compete fairly, to strive for equality, Sexism has got to be dealt with."

While she still plays tennis with husband Simon, swimming is not listed among her many athletic accomplishments. But she was thrown in at the deep end with footballer Jack Wilshire's "England for the English" controversy. It is one in which she declines to be immediately immersed, pointing out that she has barely got her feet under the ministerial table.

"I'm not going to wade into that now. It's seems a matter for the FA and the England manager and I have yet to meet the governing bodies to discuss it. But what I will say is that I have a zero tolerance attitude towards any form of discrimination – racism, sexism, homophobia, zenophobia – whatever. Also all unsportsmanlike behaviour, like spitting, gouging, abuse of referees. Absolutely zero tolerance."

But it is the fulfilment of the London 2012 legacy that must remain on top of the Grant in-basket, together with the continued provision of adequate funding at elite and grassroots level via the Exchequer, UK Sport and Sport England.

Schools sport is also a priority following the restoration of £150  million of Government funding and one looks forward to her showing the Education Secretary Michael Gove a touch of the harai-goshi should he try to renege on any Government pledges in this area.

Unlike Robertson, who was a Minister of State, she remains a junior minister, sharing her sports role with the equalities and tourism portfolios. This raises the suggestion that while promoting Robertson, Cameron has demoted sport, no longer viewing it as having the political and social clout of the past three years. "What nonsense," scoffs Grant. "Sport is now more important than ever. It is critical to the welfare of this country. I believe he has appointed me because he feels I'll be an advocate for it as a force for good."

Doubtless the personable former athlete will be a hit with sportsfolk once she settles in, and should she emerge as capable – and feisty – as her only female predecessor, Kate Hoey, it will be a bonus. But she will find sports politics at least as murky, devious and capricious as the real thing. Let's hope she proves as adept at throwing some weight around as she was in flattening the racists as a tot on the judo mat.

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