She broke world records and competed in two Olympics before being forced into retirement at 23 and forgotten. Now her achievements are finally being recognised
Anita Neil was just a toddler when she discovered two things: who her father was, and that she could run fast. Really fast. “I was introduced to my father when I was three,” Neil tells me over Zoom from her home in Wellingborough, Northamptonshire. “He knocked on the door and I ran to it with my mum, and I saw this tall, dark-skinned man standing at the door. I hadn’t got a clue who he was, until my mum told me that this was my dad.”
Her father travelled back and forth between the US and England when she was a young child, but he was the one who planted a seed in her mind that she could be an athlete. “I was standing at the top of the cul-de-sac where we lived, and my father said to me that we should have a race. I remember him saying: ‘On your marks, get set, go,’” she says. “That was the first time I knew I could run really fast. I could even feel it, and I can feel it now.” Neil won, although she says that, of course, he let her win. But when he spoke to her mother afterwards, the first thing he said was: “Anita is going to be a runner.”
He was right. Neil would go on to be not just an Olympic athlete, but the first Black woman to represent Great Britain at the Games. She began in primary school with the 70 yards sprint, then the 100 metres at secondary school. Neil says that between the ages of eight and 15 she won every race she ran. “The other children were great sports,” she says. “They used to line up and say to each other: ‘I don’t know why we’re running, Anita is just going to win!’ I entered the skipping race, the three-legged race, the sprints, and won all of them. In junior school I beat the boys.” But her journey to becoming an elite sprinter wasn’t as straightforward as simply winning races.
Neil was born on 5 April 1950, to a white English mother and African American father. He left when she was six, leaving her mother to raise their five children. “It was very difficult, and very humbling because we didn’t have any money,” Neil says. “We relied on our grandparents. It must have been very difficult for my mum, with her having brown kids. We were ridiculed and so was she.”
Neil and her siblings were the only mixed-race pupils at their primary school, and faced racism from teachers and in the playground. Neil remembers a dinner lady in particular. “She often used to stand behind me to watch me eat. We used to cut up our food with a knife and fork, but eat using a fork – like our dad did, American-style. She kept saying we ate like animals.” Neil’s sister once heard another teacher say: “We don’t want the likes of them here.”
At 13 years old, Neil was spotted by the man who would change her life – a PE teacher, Roger Beadsworth, who began coaching her twice a week. This training, alongside watching British long jumper Mary Rand win the gold at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo, was inspiration enough for Neil to set her sights on the Games.
At 14, she attended the All England school championships and won first place in the long jump; at 15, she joined the London Olympiads Ladies athletics club at the suggestion of Beadsworth.
At one of its competitions she got to meet her idol in the flesh. “Mary Rand watched me jump, and I thought it was the most amazing thing,” she says. “She encouraged me and gave me some tips.”
A few months later Neil was chosen to represent Great Britain at an international competition in Lille, France, as Rand’s replacement due to an injury. “So I had to long jump instead of this gold medallist! That was nerve-racking,” Neil says. “It was the first time I’d ever travelled in a plane or gone abroad. I didn’t know anybody so it was quite daunting but really exciting.”
Travelling to Cuba to race as a 16-year-old was exciting too; it was her first time in a majority-Black country – and it was a world away from Wellingborough. “They loved me there. A lot of people thought I was from Cuba,” she says.
Her rise may have seemed effortless but her financial circumstances made almost everything about training a struggle. Wellingborough did not (and does not) have an athletics track, so Neil had to use her school’s old grassy football field and under-equipped gymnasium. She and her coach found creative ways to make do. “We didn’t have any weights in the gymnasium, so weight training became a matter of my coach lifting [the weights] up on my shoulders and me sitting on a chair,” she says. “At one time I sat back down and the chair went backwards, and I injured my back!”
Yet while the school’s equipment may not have helped her ambitions, her teachers rallied round. When her family could not afford her tracksuit or spikes, they stepped in. Occasionally, she had the chance to train in London if her coach could take her – she couldn’t afford the petrol money, so had to rely on his generosity. Speaking today about the community support she received, she says: “I just thought they were all very kind. It was wonderful because I needed that tracksuit – I used it to collect badges to put on it from all of the meets I went to. I just felt grateful for what they did.”
At 15 Neil had to leave school and get a full-time job as a seamstress in a clothing factory to help support her family. “It was hard. I was working 36-hour weeks and training,” she says. “I didn’t have a social life – it was just running, training and working.” But it was worth it, she felt, to make her Olympic dream happen.
And at a national meet in Portsmouth, she realised it would. Having won the 100 metres, and set a new national record of 10.6sec for 100 yards, Neil and the 4×110 yards relay team broke the world record. The whole team were invited to Buckingham Palace to receive a certificate from the Duke of Edinburgh, although it was another sports star that left a lasting impression. “It was awesome, especially because I met George Best. He opened the door and let me through.”
Shortly after Portsmouth, Neil got written confirmation that she would be representing Great Britain at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico. “I was excited,” she says. “You know, it was a surreal feeling. It felt so good. You think, I’ve made all this hard work pay off, all the hours you’ve put into it, dedicated yourself to it.”
In Mexico Neil ran in both the 100 metres and 4×100 metres relay. She met British athletes from across the country. “It was great to hear their stories about how they made it there.” But it also highlighted to Neil just how many extra obstacles she had faced.
“Most people either lived near a track or had transportation. I didn’t have that – what I had was a bumpy grass field. I didn’t have any competition – I either had to train on my own, or put the other schoolchildren a mile up the field and chase after them. Some of these athletes belonged to clubs where there were three or four internationals, and they could all train together.”
Although Neil made the second round of the 100 metres and the final of the relay, she “really wanted to go faster … I wanted to run a personal best but I didn’t,” she says. “But I did give it all I had and tried my best.”
The 1968 Olympics were eye-opening in other ways, too. This was when John Carlos and Tommie Smith, both medallists in the men’s 200 metres, raised gloved fists from the medallists’ podium during the US national anthem. The gesture became an iconic symbol, the Black Power salute, and was one of the most overtly political statements the Olympic Games had seen.
Neil says that in the stands it was not clear at first what was happening. “We didn’t know what it was about. At first, I thought somebody had passed away,” she says. “I didn’t realise it was about American civil rights until later that day, watching the coverage on the news.”
Back then, the ramifications of staging a protest like that were grave, but Neil is pleased to see things have got easier for sports people who want to make a stand, and is supportive of those who take the knee. “I think they’re putting out a message because they want to enlighten people to the racial issues and tensions that still go on in this country and other parts of the world.”
Her next Olympics was overshadowed by tragedy. At the 1972 Games in Munich, 11 members of the Israeli Olympic team were taken hostage and murdered by the Palestinian terrorist group Black September. Two days before, Neil had been on the warm-up track when she felt a tap on her shoulder from Amitzur Shapira, an Israeli coach. “He said to me: ‘You’re going to run against Esther [Roth-Shahamorov] in three days’ time. It will be a good race.’ I replied that I was, and was certainly looking forward to it. The next day he was murdered,” she says. “It was so sad.”
Between Mexico and Munich, Neil collected silver at the 1970 Commonwealth Games in the 4×100 metres relay, and three bronzes at the 1969 European Championships in 100 metres, 200 metres, and 2×100 metres relay. But she was still working almost full-time as a receptionist and a sales worker to support herself and her family. In many ways it was a double life.
“On one hand, we were struggling. My family, siblings, home life, living in social housing. Then I was staying in five-star hotels and eating luxury foods and flying all over the world,” she says. “It was such a contrast and it was a lot to balance. I just had to come down to earth and get on with it, really, thinking: ‘I’ve got to earn some money to keep a roof over our head.’”
Eventually it all became too much. Her former PE teacher had to finally stop training her because of his personal obligations, and the lack of training facilities, and having to support her family, meant that Neil made the hugely difficult decision to retire from athletics at just 23. “Myself and my family felt that it wasn’t right [that I had to retire], but we didn’t know what else to do,” she says. Neil always wanted to complete the four Ms – competing not only in Mexico and Munich, but also Montreal and Moscow – and remembers watching her former relay teammates win the bronze in women’s 4×100 metres relay in the 1980 Moscow Olympics. “I watched it painfully. I really missed out, and felt dreadful.”
As she tried to come to terms with her curtailed athletics career, Neil returned to college, and took office jobs. But the terrible disappointment of her early retirement, after struggling for so long, was hard to come to terms with, and she became reclusive.
“I just felt let down,” she says. “Seeing my fellow athletes out there doing their thing, I thought that I should have been out there, that I could have been out there. I was struggling mentally. My life wasn’t structured for years and years.”
Unable to bear to look at her former achievements, she even locked away her trophies – putting in storage her certificates, medals and any traces of anything that could remind her she was once an Olympic athlete. “I don’t think I wanted to look at them,” she says. “I just felt so hurt about everything.”
During her running career, the thought that she might well have been the first Black female British Olympic athlete didn’t cross her mind. “I just tried to blend in really.” It was her sister who suggested it and who, about 20 years ago, got in touch with Guinness World Records with the query, but didn’t hear anything back.
When the Olympic torch passed through Wellingborough for the 2012 Games, Neil wasn’t asked to carry it, which was a blow. “I was very, very upset. It hurt me, really so much. To think that the Olympic torch was going to go through my home town, where no one else has represented Great Britain at the Olympic Games, and I wasn’t even asked.”
But finally this year, more than 50 years after she competed in Mexico, the British Olympic Association confirmed that she was Great Britain’s first Black female Olympic athlete and, for Neil, the response from her community in Wellingborough and beyond has been astounding. “On social media, I can see thousands of likes and comments, which is just wonderful to hear. And when I go into town, there’s always people coming up to me and saying congratulations, you deserve the acknowledgement, and that it’s about time.”
Her family were always supportive. Neil’s mother, who is 93, was able to watch a news report of her daughter finally being recognised, with an interview. “She still feels so very, very proud of me. Always.” Neil’s daughter took after her, running the 200 metres and being part of a gymnastics club.
Her medals and sporting achievements, which were in storage for decades, are now proudly displayed at her sister’s home. Getting them out of storage brought back happy memories. “I thought, my goodness, did I really jump that far, was I really that fast? I’m amazed at what I did.”