Tessa Sanderson: 'I was spat on and called golliwog'

An amazing life has included Olympic gold and outspoken views on drugs. Now Tessa's academy is finding our sporting stars of the future – so why is she still an outsider? Alan Hubbard speaks to Tessa Sanderson
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It has always been a mystery why Tessa Sanderson has never been afforded greater recognition, not only for her athletic achievements – she was the first British black woman ever to win Olympic gold – but for what she continues to contribute to the nation's sporting heritage. Those who complain that retired sporting heroes rarely put anything back into the game should look no further than Newham, right in London's Olympic heartland, where the feisty-as-ever Sanderson is putting the same effort that saw her heave her way to the Olympic podium 25 years ago into helping ensure that London 2012 has a true legacy.

There she is running an academy for potential young stars of 2012 and beyond, something she has built up over the past three years off her own bat with the enthusiastic backing of a far-sighted local council but precious little from the Government, Boris Johnson or the Lottery. To say she has worked wonders is something of an understatement. There are now 70 "pupils" at the Newham Academy to which Tessa has enticed a dozen coaches covering most of the Olympic and Paralympic sports, with a further 60 young athletes on the waiting list for track and field alone.

You certainly would not confuse Sanderson with Simon Cowell, but her remarkable Newham project has the hallmark of a veritable sporting X Factor. She calls it: "A model for young people to take up sports all over the UK. We want to be sure we are cheering on British athletes in 2012 and beyond. I want to see the best of my athletes competing [against] and beating the best in the world."

Some examples of the progress that has been made in recruiting local kids include a 19-year-old 110 metres hurdler, Emmanuel Okpokiri, coached by Tony Jarrett, who is on course for the Commonwealth Youth Games and, according to Sanderson, "has the potential that could see him there in 2012 but more likely for 2016". Then there's a 10.8sec sprinter, Rashid Kakoza, coached by Julian Golding, and a remarkable trio of fencers all from different ethnic backgrounds. They are known as the Newham Swords and have just deposed a rather posh rival team from Kensington and Chelsea as champions in the London Youth Games, bringing a whole new connotation to the word "fencing" in the East End.

Sanderson has done this by breaking down barriers and knocking on the doors of organisations such as the ExCel Centre, 2012 partners CLM and the Football League to extract a few bob, plus ploughing money from her own speaking engagements into the communal pot. "There is so much talent in the East End. I am just pleased that we now have the wherewithal to unearth some of it."

But digging up those nuggets has not been easy. "We have had to go into schools to convince head teachers, telling them we were searching for a star, tap up the local leisure centres to get free use of their facilities and talk hospitals into getting their medicos and physios on board.

"No one else has the uniqueness we have here. I know we have the right set-up from the number of kids we have knocking on the door wanting to come in. I just need more funding. If we don't catch medals in 2012, we will in 2016. All I want is people to say, 'Listen, Tess, we want to help you,' because this is a damn fine project."

To help raise cash this year she organised a 10km race in Newham which went through the Olympic Park. There were 1,200 runners. The TV presenter Jim Rosenthal helped host the day after earlier apologising for jokingly referring to her as a "spear-chucker", which piqued the PC stormtroopers far more than it did her. "Jim's no racist," she snorts. "He's a pal, a great guy. We laughed about it."

However, when later she encountered Ron Atkinson on the TV show Celebrity Wife Swap, it was no laughing matter. They clashed heatedly over his notorious "lazy nigger" gaffe which cost him his football analyst's role.

"Yes, dear old Ron," she recalls. "We had an interesting week and it got a bit shirty at times. I don't think he really meant any harm, it was just unfortunate, but I made the point that it did hurt a lot of people. Actually I don't think he's a racist either but I do know a few people who are."

The Jamaica-born Sanderson, who came to Britain when she was six, has risen above the prejudice she says dogged her while she was growing up in Wolverhampton. "I had people spit on me in school and was called a golliwog and a nigger. When you are 15 or 16 that is hurtful, very, very hurtful. I had fights over it. OK, that was then but, you know, there still are a lot of people in Britain who are racist. But at the end of the day you have to know who you are, you can't go round with a chip on your shoulder all the time because you will never move on.

"There's a lot of feeling among some of our young black athletes. When I see somebody get hurt, it hurts me too, especially in my community and my family. I am accepted now bec-ause I have gone out there and done things, proved my worth, flown the flag, but it's still about, though fortunately it does not confront me now. Anyway, I have grown up knowing how to handle it.

"With some young people today it can be a bit touch and go. I know some young black kids feel they are not worthy because there is no work, they just go home or hang around all day, which is why I am so pleased we have this academy because when they come in here, I can tell them, 'You are bloody worthy'. I've had Asbos come in, rough kids, but I know through sport they can become great kids."

You would think there would be room for someone who has been there, done it and got the Olympic T-shirt (not to mention a gold medal) alongside the academics, business tycoons and B-list celebs who seem to proliferate on sport's quangos and governing bodies... or the 2012 organisation itself. Yet for all her efforts on behalf of the London Games, she remains on the outside. She was involved with the original London bid team led by Barbara Cassani but was not invited to be part of the party which went to Singapore. "It hurt a bit. I felt there were a lot of people there that hadn't really done as much.

"I was disappointed not to be asked to run with the Olympic torch when it came through London in 2004 but I was in Stratford when the decision was announced, which was fantastic. There are times I felt I had been overlooked and I wonder why. I've always tried my best for sport and my community."

Back in the 1990s she was a vice-chair of Sport England, the then sports minister, the late Tony Banks, unsuccessfully proposing to make her chairman. "Tony always told me, 'Tessa, you should go into politics'. And it's something I do love; one day I probably will – I am very interested. I'd love to be minister of sport. I tell you what; I'm absolutely sure, knowing what I do about sport at grass-roots level, I could do a damn better job than some of them." Which party? "I am open to discussion. The Government have never approached me. In fact, what I have been asked to do in India [where she acts as a consultant to their sports federations] is more than I have been asked to do here. So if the Tories want to come and talk to me, I am happy to listen."

At a trim 53, Tessa Sanderson CBE (surely she deserves a Damehood?) confesses that she has never been happier. She is getting married in May to the British judo chief Densign White. He is 48 – "My toy-boy," she giggles. They are both from Wolverhampton and have known each other since 1984 – the year of her javelin triumph at the Los Angeles Olympics, which remains our only such success in a throwing field event – but did not start dating until three years ago.

Dame Kelly Holmes, Sharron Davies, Sonia Lannaman and Christine Ohuruogu (whose sister Victoria is at Tessa's academy) will be her bridesmaids. She has also invited Ron Atkinson. It is her first marriage, but she has been engaged twice. Does she regret not having settled down before and had children? "Yes, big time. I've tried but it just never happened and now I have been wanting to adopt for the last couple of years and I think that's going to happen soon. I love kids to death – I've always wanted them."

Sanderson's competitive days were frequently tempestuous, especially her acrimonious rivalry with Fatima Whitbread. "If I wrote a book I could take the house down but it would hurt a lot of people, even though some of them have done a lot of horrible, nasty things to hurt me, which is why I am so glad I have got my family and special friends who make me feel I am a person."

She has always been outspoken on the drugs issue. "In the Commonwealth Games in 1990 I was threatened with a kicking by a competitor whom I believed was on drugs. I am sorry to say that a sport I have come to love and have enjoyed has been totally tarnished, and for the wrong reasons. People have got greedy and believe they can go the extra mile by poisoning their system. It's just cheating, they think they can do that, win and earn a few bob.

"It's just disgusting. It hurts because the youngsters that are coming through and are easily led will think that's the right way to do it. It's wrong not only to take drugs, but that everybody else should be tarnished by the suspicion. I'm talking about things like steroids, not vitamins, because we all do that. When you go to extremes like Dwain [Chambers] and Marion Jones, people you call friends, you think, 'Oh my God, it's really come close to home, this is just crazy'.

"There are people in my sport who I know did drugs, who I knew were at it, and I wondered, why do they do it? But I can hold up my gold medal, look at it and it's all there. The gold is still on it. I won it for myself, for my coach, Wilf Paish, and I can hold my hand up and say, 'Hey Britain, this is for you'. It's a wonderful feeling."