The story of Tessa Sanderson

‘The first’ is a phrase that crops up time and time again when reflecting on the incredible career of Tessa Sanderson CBE, one of Great Britain’s greatest ever track and field athletes.

First black British woman to win an Olympic gold medal

At Los Angeles 1984, Olympics not only was Tessa Sanderson the first and only British athlete to win an Olympic throwing event, the javelin legend was also the first black British woman to win an Olympic gold medal.

Sanderson’s remarkable longevity at the top is also unmatched, becoming the first and only British woman to date to compete at six successive Olympic Games over two decades.  

She is a trailblazer in every sense of the word but as is so often the case with pioneers, her climb to the pinnacle of her sport was not without its obstacles along the way.  

Where was Tessa Sanderson born?

Born in Jamaica, Sanderson was raised by her grandmother before following her Windrush generation parents over to England when she was six years old.  

And it was not just the extreme drop in temperature in Wolverhampton she had to quickly acclimatise to as her parents also warned her about the prejudice she would face.  

“We slotted in with everything but one of the good things about having the parents we did was that they were really level-headed and taught us all about what to expect,” she said.  

“They educated us about black lives in the UK and what we were about to experience if we were to experience it and how to handle it – which the majority of it we did.  

“It was more so when I went into school, where it wasn’t blatant prejudice, but it was bullying. One lad spat on my clothes while we were often called names and hurtful things.”  

But while her schooling life was turbulent at times, it was also where Sanderson’s athletic potential was realised and fostered by her PE teacher Barbara Richards.  

Having joined Wolverhampton & Bilston AC, her rise through the ranks was rapid and she won the first of eight British javelin titles in 1975 before making her Olympic debut in Montreal a year later.  

A tenth-place finish in Canada was just the start of her rollercoaster Olympic journey, which hit a bump in the road when she failed to qualify for the final at the 1980 Moscow Games.  

Winning Olympic Gold in Javelin

But despite injury ruling her out for 22 months in the build up to her third Games, Sanderson threw an Olympic record of 69.56m to etch her name into British history in Los Angeles.  

“Winning Olympic gold, other than having my adopted twins, has been the greatest feat I’ve had – it’s been a dream come true,” explained Sanderson, who topped the podium ahead of Finland’s Tiina Lillak and great rival Fatima Whitbread.  

“We were all capable of throwing that distance but when I threw that in the first round I thought, ‘This is a big competition, they are going to have to throw like hell to get that’.   

It just felt phenomenal. I felt so good, the javelin position was perfect, everything felt perfect. I could not have done even an inch better in that throw – it was just to absolute perfection.  

“When the final round came, I watched Tiina Lillak take her final round throw and I just stood there and looked because she put the whole of Finland into that throw.  

“Fatima had already got her bronze and the whole of Finland was watching and that javelin just didn’t seem to be coming down but when it came up short, I just knelt on the ground.  

“I held my hands up and it was all for my family and my country, people were singing God Save the Queen before I got on the podium, the feeling made me just want to cry.”  

Black British Sporting history

Sanderson’s victory was iconic, it broke down barriers and paved the way for other black female athletes.  

“It didn’t dawn on me that I was the first British black woman to win a throwing event in an Olympic Games, it was only later on when my coach and others were telling me,” she said.  

“I realised this was something really special. I thought Jamaica would be proud, the black community would be proud because I never ever forgot my motherland.  

Black British sporting icons

“Knowing that no other black British person – and no other white person – had won a throwing event at an Olympics was extraordinary, I felt I’d done something really important.  

“It felt special for the community and young black people coming through, especially young black girls who wanted to take up sport – especially a sport like the javelin.”

Racism Tessa Sanderson faced  

Yet even becoming an Olympic champion did not stop Sanderson from being subjected to hate.  

“Someone wrote to me and said I had won Olympic gold and I won it for Britain, but I was black and I would never be British. I remember showing my dad, I just couldn’t believe it.”  

Her history-making feat in 1984 also did not pay the bills and after the company she worked for went into liquidation, she found herself with no sponsorship and no income.  

“I had to self-promote myself and almost have a whole makeover,” she said. “I started to look at journalism and speaking engagements, as well as TV jobs that came through.”  

Retiring had crossed Sanderson’s mind but she went on to compete at another three Olympic Games alongside her media work, making her last appearance aged 40 at Atlanta 1996.  

The end of her competitive career did not stop Sanderson from breaking new ground, though, becoming the first woman to be made vice-chair of Sport England in 1999.  

She was also a board member of the Olympic Park Legacy Company and founded the Tessa Sanderson Foundation and Academy – a charity which educates youngsters through sport.  

And while society has come a long way since her Olympic triumph almost four decades ago, the 64-year-old is still fighting for and promoting black voices – especially in the boardrooms.  

“It’s been 36 years since I won that Olympic gold medal and every time I recall that it just gives me that massive buzz still, I feel that feeling of being the best,” she added.  

I think winning that gold medal then, I had done something the black community would be proud of. Britain would be proud, but also my black community would be proud.  

“Now I feel that I have helped to achieve a piece of some of the things that have happened now for black people, but our voice is just as important now as it ever has been.  

“There have been some great black people who have done wonderful things, but we still need more people in the boardroom, more education and history in schools.”