19 October 2017

Inspirational Athletes Who Overcame Discrimination

"It's made me sad and empty."

They say that ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’, and in the case of sport that could actually be the case. A study, carried out by sport psychologists from Nottingham Trent University and published last week, concluded that athletes that had coped with ‘adverse life events’ – such as discrimination – are better adapted to dealing with competitive sporting situations.

The research only had 100 participants, so generalising it across the whole population could be difficult. Having said that, it does give us some valuable insight. So, could being the victim of things like discrimination make someone mentally stronger in the long run? It’s hard to say; more research is needed. But there’s certainly a lot of athletes who have overcome discrimination and gone on to smash it hard in their sports. Here’s some examples:

Sol Campbell 

Campbell is one of four black men to have captained England’s national team and he was undoubtedly one of the fiercest and greatest defenders of his era. When he left Spurs for their rivals Arsenal, in 2001, he suddenly found himself sucked into a vortex of racism and homophobia – despite being straight. The barrage of abuse was so bad that he even considered leaving the country.

Despite having to put up with all this, Campbell enjoyed a glittering domestic and international career. He spent nine years playing for Spurs where he scored 10 goals in 255 appearances and captained the team to victory in the 1999 Football League Cup Final against Leicester City. At Arsenal, he helped them win two Premier League titles and two FA Cup titles. From the age of 21, he also represented our national team picking up a total of 73 caps.

“It’s made me sad and empty,” he told the press when they asked if the abuse left its mark upon him. “I had to go down this road by myself. No authorities wanted to take notice. I had to go up and above the FA, go to the police, and say: ‘This has happened to me, I need help.’ This is football. It’s not war.”

Paul Canoville 

In 1982, Canoville became the first black footballer to play for Chelsea. The National Front, a racist far-right group who were active in England throughout the 80s, were so upset that on the eve of his debut they held a meeting to discuss the outrage. When the day of his first match came, he was subjected to flurry of repulsive abuse from Chelsea fans.

Although the racist abuse continued for years, Canoville eventually managed to gradually win over many of the Chelsea fans. Plus, after he finished his career on the pitch he became a celebrated and accomplished sports writer. His 2008 autobiography Black and Blue: How Racism, Drugs and Cancer Almost Destroyed Me won Best Autobiography in the National Sporting Club’s 2009 Book Awards and Best Autobiography in the 2009 British Sports Book Awards.

He has since founded The Paul Canoville Foundation, a charity launched to motivate disadvantaged youths to engage in education. His charity work has taken him all over the world campaigning against discrimination; America to Finland; Ukraine to India and beyond.

Mo Farah

Five years ago, when foreign-born British athletes like Mo Farah were first competing in the Olympics, some people weren’t too happy. Parts of the British press branded him a ‘plastic Brit’ and argued that the fact that he was completing for GB having been born abroad was ‘controversial’.

Unperturbed by the criticism, Farah (who moved to England at the tender age of eight) responded: “This is where I grew up,” he said. “This is where I started life. This is my country and when I put on my Great Britain vest I’m proud. I’m very proud.” But, thankfully, once he had demonstrated his sporting prowess, the people who were not happy swiftly changed their minds. The same newspaper who put him down when he first started competing for GB was soon describing him as a “legend” – talk about silencing your critics. It’s a shame that he had to become the first athlete to ever to win 10 consecutive global track distance titles to change some people’s minds.

Jay Clarke 

Jay Clarke is one of Britain’s soaring tennis stars; the 18-year-old is rising up the ranks and is now the ninth best in Britain. Last summer, he revealed that he receives 15 to 20 racially abusive messages on social media a month. He tweeted an example which he was branded a monkey and mocked with monkey emojis.

“It has happened a few times,” he told the press. “It’s the first thing people go to – colour. The first few times it’s a shock, now you’re almost waiting for it.” He added: “It’s upsetting that people think like that but it’s not the first time it’s happened and I’m sure it won’t be the last. It was important for other people to see. I get a lot of messages like that throughout the year. I’m sure a lot of other people do as well.”

Having trained with Andy Murray before the French Open, Clarke recently travelled with the Great Britain Davis Cup and took part in their recent tie against France. The teenager has rapidly risen up the ranks in the last year and became 1,621 in the world.

Featured image credit: L’express Maurice via Facebook

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