Black History Month: How Anita Neil became Team GB's first female black Olympian

Anita Neil was barely out of nappies when her immense talent first appeared.

The two-time Olympian beat her father in a 30-metre sprint to their Wellingborough front door, prompting him to go inside and eagerly tell her mother that ‘Anita is going to be a runner’. 

His prediction was right. At just 18, Neil was selected for the 1968 Games in Mexico City and then four years later was back in Team GB colours at Munich 1972. 

But the sprinter was so much more than a runner and remains one of the most important athletes in Team GB history. 

Black female Olympians

“I knew I was the non-white person in the team but I did not think that much more about it,” she said.  

“I was trying to blend in but to know that I am Britain’s first black female Olympian is fantastic. It is something I am really proud of.” 

After her father left the family home when she was young, Neil was brought up by her mother, Florence, in the Northamptonshire countryside along with four siblings.  

Money was scarce but Neil’s talent was real.  

She was spotted by athletics coach Roger Beadsworth, who encouraged her to join the London Olympiades Athletics Club, where she met and trained alongside her hero Mary Rand. 

However, unable to make regular trips to London, she mostly trained on her own and had to hold down a full-time job. 

“To think that I had made it to the Olympics considering I did a lot of training on my own on a rugby pitch. I had an old pair of spikes, and I was also working a full-time job at a clothing factory,” she said. 

“I was slogging away on a machine, earning a crass wage. They did let me off two hours early two days a week so I could go to training but sometimes I was away from home for 10 hours a day and I was just 16, 17, 18.” 

First Black female British Olympian

It was a tough slog but, in the end, worth it. Aged just 18, the 1968 Games were Neil’s first big trip away from home. And she loved every second. 

“I can remember going into the waiting room in Mexico City and we were liked caged lions, looking around at each other. And then when we walked through the tunnel, I felt like a gladiator because of the roar of the crowd,” she said. 

“There was more than 80,000 people, it was amazing. You could hear a pin drop when the gun went off, and I knew it was time to fly.” 

Neil ran in the women’s 100m and the 4x100m at both Olympics she was part of, reaching two relay finals. She was also in the stadium on the night John Carlos and Tommie Smith did the Black Power Salute. 

Four years later, Neil was in Munich when the Black September terrorist group killed six Israeli coaches and five athletes. The two events will live with her forever. 

“In Munich, an Israeli coach sat behind me on the track with his sprinter and said ‘you two are racing together in a couple of days’ but the next day he was murdered and she didn’t run. It was a very sad and emotional time.” 

Neil was just 22 during the Munich Games but that proved to be her last Olympics. The fact she didn’t progress beyond the quarter-finals in the 100m is still a source of frustration but, ultimately, it’s being part of a team that will always stick with her. 

“You realise you part of a team when you are dressed alike and you support each other, you are proud to be representing Team GB on the world stage,” she said. 

“It doesn’t matter who you are, you help each other and want everyone to do their very best. It was a brilliant time.” 

Sportsbeat 2022