With the Tokyo Games still fresh in our rear-view mirror, we wanted to know more about the Olympics – is it as stressful as it looks? So, Gen-Z Talks Magazine interviewed Myrtle Augee, a former British Olympian, about the trials and tribulations of being an Olympic athlete.
Can you describe your experiences and achievements in the world of sport to me?
I’ve had an amazing experience through sport. Without sport, there would be a lot of places I hadn’t seen – I’ve done a lot of travelling through sport. I’ve been fortunate enough to have the opportunity to represent Great Britain in three sports: athletics, which was my main sport, weightlifting and powerlifting. I’ve had a wonderful experience. It’s not just about competing and going to major championships, it’s also about meeting people and making new friends from around the world. I went to two Olympic games – I went to South Korea in 1988, and Barcelona in 1992. I’ve been to five Common Wealth games. I competed in 1986 in Edinburgh (bronze), in 1990 in Auckland, New Zealand (gold), in 1994 in Victoria, Canada (silver) and in 1998 in Malaysia (silver). The last time I competed was in Manchester in 2002, where I came in 5th place, and I retired after.
What was the biggest challenge you had to overcome during this time?
I think it’s always very difficult with sport, because it’s always about proving yourself. And wanting to be the best at what you do whilst also having obstacles in your way – for me, I always worked throughout my entire sporting career. I was never a full-time athlete. I worked full-time and also competed as an international athlete. So, that was difficult. It was very stressful, because yes, we had financial support, but it was never enough for me to say that I could compete full-time in sport.
What did you work as?
I did numerous jobs – I now work as a prison officer and a custodial manager. I had little jobs, and I moved around. I started working from the age of 17. I worked for a mail order company and I had some terrible experiences working in banks.
Do you think your experience in the world of sport differs to that of your white counterparts?
I think it’s always difficult, especially with people of colour. We’re always having to prove ourselves. I can remember an incident where I played netball somewhere, and I had to prove myself. This was a few years ago, the ladies in the team said that maybe I should play in the final – but there was another woman who had been in the team for longer and played the same position. We had a play off, where I played one game and she played the another. I played outstandingly, because I know I was a much better player, but I think it was more about loyalty. I don’t think life has ever been that easy, for women, let alone women of colour. We just get on with it. We’ve always had to work twice as hard.
In light of the recent situation with Naomi Osaka, where she refused to speak to the press for mental health reasons, do you think there needs to be an increased awareness of mental health and wellbeing in sports?
I sympathise with her – I think the majority of sports people suffer from some form of mental health issue. Whether it’s because you’re in a situation where you can’t embrace all the attention you’re getting, or whether you can’t perform to your full potential, mental health plays a very important part. The fact that you’re training day in and day out and not being able to perform, I think it’s very difficult. When you’ve got injuries, it’s very difficult. For example, Adam Gemili tore his hamstring during the warm-up, then ran 200m in two minutes instead of in seconds. You saw how he broke down, because of the fact that he said "Why is it always me?" That in itself shows you how mentally draining it can be, and very difficult, to keep trying time and time again, stepping up to the pace, trying to be on top of your game, getting injured and then getting knocked back.
I can understand Naomi’s issues, and if she’s not enjoying it, then she needs some time out. And at the same time, the press needs to be a little more sensitive to these people’s needs. They put a lot of pressure on athletes, time and time again, because they big them up, and as soon as they fail, they knock them down.
What do you think can be done to improve the public’s understanding of the pressure that the press puts on the athletes? For example, the racism faced by players in the England football team instead of support.
People understood that they did their best, it’s just the fact that we’re a nation that sits back and makes comments and unfortunately, a nation that has a lot of racism as well. Especially in football. Whether FIFA are doing enough to curb this… maybe not, because what they should be doing is penalising the team every time their players experience racism, as far as I’m concerned. That means that their fans should not have the opportunity to watch the next game. The fans don’t get to watch the game and the next game, and so be it. But they’re not taking drastic action in order to curb all this racism in sport. It shows you that we’re alright when we’re winning, but as soon as we’re not, suddenly racism comes out and people show their true colours. Unfortunately for these footballers, they’ve had to encounter that.
While there is a lot of racism in Britain, football fans are particularly known for being problematic – for example domestic abuse rises by 38% when England loses a match. What do you think it is about this sport that brings out the worst in people?
We’ve got a nation of football lovers. I work alongside some guys – if their team loses, they don’t talk to their missus, that shows you, doesn’t it? They’ve got more love for the game than they have sometimes for their own families, or anything else in their lives. They go out and play football or watch football, and every weekend, their time is taken up by going to games, because they’ve got a season ticket. It doesn’t surprise me because of their attitude, and it’s such a shame. It’s drastic, and unfortunately, that’s the attitude of some of these football supporters.
Do you think the Olympics does enough to protect its contestants from sexual harassment or assault? For example, looking at the case of Larry Nassar and US Olympic Gymnastics team.
I would say it’s not just in gymnastics, I think we’ve experienced it in athletics as well. We’ve had a couple of coaches that tried for that kind of sexual assault on these youngsters. And it’s important that in sports, we look at vetting these coaches and ensure that they’ve got some form of checks being done on them. And also, to have support when they are coaching, especially when they’re left with young children, and young females, and gymnastics is an example. When you look at the athletes having to see a physiotherapist or a coach all on their own - that really shouldn’t be happening. We should have the same system that we have when we go to see a doctor on a sensitive matter: a nurse in the room supervising. Unfortunately, there’s been a lot of sexual harassment, and we need to make sure that we try and get it right and ensure that we don’t have that same generation or era again.
Have you ever had any unpleasant experiences involving racism during your time competing?
I’ve been fortunate enough – no, I haven’t. I sit back and I try to think of any experiences that I’ve had through sport and I think athletics is a little bit more diverse. I think it would be very difficult to experience that, unless it was that you weren’t selected for a particular game because of your colour. It’s hard to prove that, you know? I personally haven’t, or any form of sexual harassment through sport, no.
What advice would you give women – particularly young black women - trying to break into the world of sports?
I think for me what’s really important is that, you’ve got to enjoy what you do. I was involved in sports since the age of about seven, I think. I had great support from my PE teachers from my primary school, and then on to my secondary school – I was fortunate enough to have the British record holder in the shot put as my PE teacher. And that’s how I got involved in shot putting. Work is not in so much about young black women trying to break through in sport, it’s women on a whole. And I think you’ve got to be passionate about what you do. If you are, you have to stick to it, and not be influenced by other people – for example, if you’re dating somebody who’s trying to get you to give up sport because they want to spend more time with you, you have to just make sure you’re strong enough mentally to say, ‘this is what I enjoy doing, if you can’t support me, then sayonara.’ Work hard at it. Sometimes you have to commit yourself – sometimes we have to sacrifice certain things in life if we want to be the best. And if that means missing out on weddings, funerals, birthday parties, holidays, then unfortunately, that has to happen.
Tasha is a frequent contributor at our magazine, and a BA Arabic & Spanish student at the University of Leeds. She also writes for The Gryphon newspaper and is the social media manager for Croydon Refugee Day Centre. She writes pieces on social justice, travel, fashion and the arts and is currently working on the manuscripts of several novels. Her Instagram handle is @tashwritesx.