Was Wellingborough athlete Anita Neil Britain's first black female Olympian? - She'd like to know

Anita made her debut for Great Britain as a 16-year-old long jumper

Thursday, 29th April 2021, 9:59 am

Decades before Dina Asher-Smith, Katarina Johnson-Thompson, Denise Lewis, Christine Ohuruogu, Dame Kelly Holmes and Jessica Ennis-Hill became the golden girls of British athletics one little girl from Wellingborough was following her Olympic dream.

Anita Neil, now 70, was barely 16 when she made her Great Britain debut competing in the long jump and she went on to be a medal-winning sprinter at the Commonwealth Games and European Championships and competed at two Olympic Games.

An achievement made all the more incredible in that by day she worked as a machinist in a clothing factory, had no financial backing, trained in her spare time with no club and her family were cash-strapped - all factors that led to the premature end to her glittering career.

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Anita Neil with some of her official GB and England running kits

But the gran-of-three, who classes herself as 'brown British', helped by her sister Catherine Arrowsmith, is now on a quest for recognition of her achievement as a pioneer and acknowledgement that she was Britain's first black female Olympian.

Catherine said: "I think her story should be recognised. She paved the way and was a pioneer."

Anita said: "The journey I have had was quite different and difficult. Some people had it quite easy and were able to train or go to London for meets.

"I trained after work three days a week and they let me off early sometimes but I was doing piecework so it was very tiring.

Anita with work colleagues at Ideal Clothes in Wellingborough

"Nowadays you would get Lottery funding and advice on nutrition - I lived off baked beans and coffee."

Family life for the budding athlete was sometimes difficult. Wellingborough born and bred, Anita's mum Florence, now 92, had fallen in love with and married an African American GI stationed in the town but the relationship didn't last.

Being brought up by a single mum 'surrounded by love', with support from grandparents, in a yet-to-be multi-racial town, the children were sometimes picked on with racial slurs and made examples of, not by their school pals, but by teachers and adults.

She said: "There were a lot of people who didn't like us being around but we had really good friends that we still know today.

Anita in her opening ceremony dress with Lynn Davies gold-medal winning long jumper

"There had been a handful of mixed race kids a few years older than us. We got some name calling but it was by the adults."

Growing up the middle child in a loving home in Dale Street with two brothers and two sisters, Anita's talent for running was first spotted at a school sports day at Bassett's Park.

She said: "The gun went off and I started running. Half way down the track I wondered where everyone else was.

"I stopped and turned round and they were way down the track but one person got ahead. That was the last time I came second in any school race. I learnt a lesson from that and came first in all the others."

Anita Neil with her bronze and silver medals

From Avenue Infants' to Freeman's Endowed School, the young Anita competed at county schools level until she moved up to John Lea Secondary School in 1961 and came under the guidance of PE teacher Roger Beadsworth who became her mentor and coach.

At school sports day she excelled. Finishing in the top three meant qualification for the district event, from there to the Northamptonshire Schools County Sports at Duston.

Anita left her peers trailing in her wake and made it to the All England Schools' meet in 1965, taking part in the long jump. The teachers had a whip round and bought her a tracksuit.

At the event she met Mary Rand, track and field superstar who had just won gold at the Tokyo Olympics and Anita was inspired to train harder.

She said: "Mary Rand was my inspiration, she'd just won gold, and Roger Beadsworth was absolutely fantastic. He took me and mum to meetings at his expense. He'd drive us all over the place.

"Sometimes I would catch the train on my own across London. I was just a young girl.

Anita with her official tracksuits for England and Great Britain

"When I left school I carried on training at John Lea School on the rough grass of the rugby field. I was working 36 hours a week in the Ideal Clothes factory.

"They let me go early two days a week. Sometimes Mr Beadsworth would collect me straight from work and I'd train. He was dedicated."

All the hard work paid off and at the age of 16, she was selected to compete for Great Britain in Lille, France as a replacement for her hero Mary Rand because she was injured.

Anita's sprint times meant she also qualified for the 100m relay.

"It was fantastic to become an international. I was the youngest on the team. I went on a plane for the first time and stayed in a hotel. None of the other girls were working in factories, they were all at university.

"I went for the experience and I also competed in the 4x100m relay. A few weeks later eight of us went to Cuba. We stayed in the biggest, poshest hotel. It was such a contrast and really widened my horizons.

"My aim was to get to Mexico for the Olympics. Mr Beadsworth knew I had the talent and didn't want to see it wasted."

In 1968, Anita was part of a world record winning 4x 110 yards relay team and attended a reception at Buckingham Palace with her teammates.

Her dream came true when she received a letter saying she had been selected for the Olympics in the 100m and the 4x100m relay- she wasn't allowed to do the long jump in case she injured herself.

Anita said: "The opening ceremony was awesome. I wore a blue dress with gold buttons designed by Hardy Amies. I took it up to make it into a mini-dress."

Watching at home was sister Catherine and the rest of the proud family.

She said: "We could see her, she was the only brown one in the team."

Anita made it to the quarter finals in the 100m and her relay team came fifth in the final. She witnessed one of the most notorious protests in Olympic history when John Carlos and Tommie Smith stood on the podium and gave the black power salute.

She said: "It was about civil rights and identity. One thing that not many people know is that they wore socks to represent being poor. It was very brave of them. Civil rights were bad in the US."

In 1969, it was Anita's turn to stand on the podium in the European Championships in Athens, not once but twice where she won a bronze in the 4x100m relay and another bronze in the blue riband event - the 100m.

She said: "To see the Union Jack fluttering in the breeze for me was brilliant."

The following year took her to Edinburgh and the Commonwealth Games, in the sprints for England. Still working with her PE teacher coach, Anita was training on the school playing fields. Her contemporaries used bespoke indoor and outdoor training facilities and proper tracks.

Her relay team made it to the final and the podium again but were pipped to the gold by Australia led by Aussie superstar Raelene Boyle.

Selected once again to represent Great Britain at the 1972 Munich Olympics, she was witness to the attack in the Olympic village when eight members of the Palestinian terrorist group Black September, took nine members of the Israeli Olympic team hostage, killing two of them. One of them Anita has been speaking to just the day before in the stadium.

She said: "We were not sure if there were snipers. We were watching it on the telly in our rooms. Afterwards we didn't want them to think they had won so we wanted to carry on.

"I ran against the Americans and they were ace. I was in a strong heat and got through to the quarter finals. In the relay we made the finals."

When Anita returned to Wellingborough her coach Mr Beadsworth, who had supported her for so much of her track career, was no longer able to coach her.

Without any financial help, the two-time Olympian was left to train on her own.

She said: "I was aiming for the Montreal Olympics. At the age of 23 I couldn't go to any meetings and didn't have anywhere to train.

"And that's the point, nobody chased me up. I disappeared into oblivion. I struggled on the field on my own and on occasions I would stay with a couple in London who had put up Mary Rand, but they moved away. I did go to some of the meetings."

Sister Catherine said: "She turned into a hermit for about seven years."

Anita did get to Montreal but only as a spectator, paid for by a friendly black US official. She could see her friends from the crowd but could not speak to them.

She said: "It was heartbreaking, I couldn't get them but I could see them from a distance. I was very disillusioned.

"I hoped to do the four 'M's - Mexico, Munich, Montreal and Moscow."

When the Olympic torch relay came to her home town in 2012, she was disappointed not to be invited to take part in the celebrations as a bearer and she was unable to afford tickets to the London games.

She said: "The council could have put me forward. I was invited to a reception at the end when the torch bearers came in.

"When you think there's 80,000 people in Wellingborough and I'm the only one who's been twice.

"I wanted to honour my relay friends Lillian Board, Janet Simpson, Denise Ramsden and Donna Murray. They have all passed away."

Although people in the town came out to welcome her after her successes.

After returning to university in her forties, Anita is now retired using her time for walking and charity work pre-pandemic. She spends time with her daughter Charlotte and grandchildren, Katelyn, 12, 10-year-old Cara and baby Kye.

Looking back on her foiled athletics career she added: "For poor kids we did well.

"I'd like to think my grandchildren are inspired by me. I had a ball and it was unbelievable but I would like some acknowledgement and we'd like to know for definite if I was the first black female Olympian."

There is an oil painting of Anita in Wellingborough Museum by Hubert William Pack
Anita as a schoolgirl with her formidable trophy collection
The buttons on Anita's Hardy Amies-designed Olympic outfit for the opening ceremony of the Mexico games
Anita at John Lea School all smiles after winning all her events
World record holders l-r Lillian Board, Della Pasco, Val Peat, Anita Neil, Janet Simpson, and Maureen Tranter at Buckingham Palace
Well-wishers greeted Anita at the station on her return to Wellingborough from the European Championships in Athens
Anita has a vast archive of her time in athletics
Anita met her hero Mary Rand