Check out our innovative home and kitchen tools to make cooking and beverages more enjoyable

Style Switcher

Predefined Colors

Eni Aluko: We all have moments in life when our morals are called into question

When the striker called out racism in the England camp, it ended her international career. She explains why the fight was worth it

Eniola Aluko is one of only 11 female footballers to have played more than 100 times for England. She has scored some of the Lionesses most memorable goals, was the first female pundit on Match Of The Day, and is a qualified lawyer, having graduated from Brunel University London with a first in 2008. But it is as a whistleblower that she is destined to be best remembered. And, like many whistleblowers, she has spent the subsequent years being rubbished by those she exposed.

Now she has written a memoir. They Dont Teach This is a fascinating examination of her multiple identities British and Nigerian, a girl in a boys world, footballer and academic, a kid from an estate with upper-middle-class parents, a God-fearing rebel. But the book is at its best when she reveals exactly what happened after she accused the England management team of racism, and the Football Association of turning a blind eye to it. Aluko does not hold back and few people from the football establishment emerge with their reputation intact.

Aluko now plays for Juventus in Italy, but we meet at her old stomping ground, Brunel. She has been delayed by traffic, which gives me time to explore the sports centre. On the wall are three huge, framed posters of Brunel alumni sporting legends. Guess who they are, I say to Aluko when she arrives. Mo Farah, definitely, she says instantly. And? Erm oh, Usain Bolt! Obviously! He trained here. And the third? She is stumped. Then she looks. Oh. My. God! It is a poster of her playing for England. Wow! Thats amazing. She looks genuinely thrilled.

Aluko has a small, mobile face with striking features big, brown eyes and a huge, ear-to-ear smile. When she is unhappy, she makes no attempt to hide it; her glare is as forbidding as the smile is winning. And there havent been many times over the past five years that Aluko has had reason to smile.

Eniola
Eniola Aluko playing for England against Germany at Wembley in November 2014. Photograph: Alamy

It all started in January 2014, barely a month after Mark Sampson took over as manager of the Lionesses. Sampson was 30 years old, an inexperienced coach who had never played professional football. At 28, Aluko was virtually an England veteran, a first-team regular and a popular member of the squad who had used her legal skills to champion teammates notably helping to draw up a new central contract for the team. The striker was also a conscientious player, always keen to improve her game.

Her desire to better herself led to her taking advantage of a new system that enabled players to watch back games and analyse their own performance, while hearing the audio from the management team. After a match against Finland, a 3-1 win for England in which Aluko had scored a goal and made another, she reviewed the footage. Aluko had been pleased with her performance which made it more shocking when she heard the audio. The goalkeeping coach Lee Kendall said: Eni is lazy as fuck, and: Shes not fit enough. Then, when I lost the ball, he said: Oh, fuck off, Eni, she tells me. She heard no disparaging remarks about other players, nor any positive comments when she scored and assisted a goal.

Aluko was confused. She was in the form of her life, with six goals in six games for England. And, more to the point, she says, she had never been called lazy before. At the time, I didnt think too deeply about what was being said. I was just like: why is this being said about me on a portal that everyone can access? Then I started thinking about where has this come from. The more she thought about it, the more convinced she became that there was a racial connotation. Look, lazy is a generic term. Anybody can be called lazy if youre not tracking back. But if youre black and youre called lazy, its different. Some words have real context to them, and this dates back to slavery times. In that split second, Im sure Lee Kendall didnt think about racial connotations, but thats what racism can be.

One coach spoke to her in a fake Caribbean accent. I was tempted to speak to him in a Scottish accent, despite knowing he was Welsh. Aluko is fully aware, as are most football fans of a certain age, how charged the word lazy is in relation to black footballers. In 2004, the former Manchester United manager Ron Atkinson was sacked as a pundit on ITV (and as a Guardian columnist) after a microphone picked him up saying the French defender Marcel Desailly is what is known in some schools as a fucking lazy thick nigger. Aluko knew Kendalls comment bore no comparison, but she couldnt help thinking about it. She started to feel the management team had it in for her, but kept stumm. What Kendall had said was unpleasant, but it would be virtually impossible to prove it was anything more. If they didnt like her, she would show her worth on the pitch. And she did, finishing joint top scorer among all nations competing for qualification for the European Championships in 2015, with 13 goals.

But the comments continued now to her face. In November 2014, she told Sampson that her family was flying in from Nigeria for a friendly against Germany. He replied: Well, make sure they dont come over with Ebola. (Sampson denied saying this for a long time after.) Aluko says she laughed nervously but was left reeling. She told her England teammate Lianne Sanderson, but said she wasnt going to make a big deal of it. She wanted to focus on her football.

At one point, Kendall, a close friend of Sampson, started speaking to her in a fake Caribbean accent. It infuriated Aluko not least because she isnt from the Caribbean. I was often tempted to speak to him in a Scottish accent, despite knowing he was Welsh, just to make the point.

Eniola
Im an optimistic, positive person normally, but I was miserable during that time. Photograph: Perou/The Guardian

Then she started to notice other things happening to black members of the squad. In October 2015, Chelseas midfielder Drew Spence was called up to the England squad for the first time, for a trip to China. Spence told Aluko that, in a meeting of midfielders, Sampson turned to the newcomer and said: Havent you been arrested before, then? Four times, isnt it? Spence was the only non-white player in the room and has never been arrested. After making these remarks, Sampson never picked her again for England; she still has only two caps.

A few days later, the midfielder Jill Scott was feted when she won her 100th cap against Australia speeches were made, she captained the team, a video message was played from her family. In the same match, Sanderson won her 50th cap another considerable milestone, normally celebrated with a special shirt but this was ignored. Sanderson told Aluko she was devastated; with Alukos encouragement, she told Sampson how upset she was, but asked him not to make an issue of it in front of the team. The following day, he addressed the squad, said he had made a mistake in not acknowledging her 50th cap and presented her with a special shirt. Sanderson was never selected for England again.

While Sampson did not drop Aluko, he told her repeatedly that he couldnt rely on her, that she lacked stamina and heart, that she was selfish and didnt play for the team. After Aluko scored a hat-trick in a 10-0 thrashing of Montenegro, Sampson presented her with the ball, telling the team: We all know Eni is a pain in the arse, but she did well to score a hat-trick after I gave her the target of scoring five goals today.

Aluko was still reluctant to draw attention to Sampsons behaviour. As black players, you dont always want to be bringing these issues up. You want to just play football. You know that the accusations of playing the race card are going to come up. So I would bite my tongue. Id see the level of ignorance, roll my eyes and get on with it.

And so it continued. Aluko says the only thing that kept her going was her desperation to reach 100 caps and become the first British-African woman to do so. When it finally happened, in February 2016, the occasion was soured by Sampson. She says he refused to give her advanced notice she would be playing, so she could invite her family. Then, on the morning of the match, Sampson told her she wasnt in the starting 11 because he wanted to field his strongest team. In the end, he brought her on in the second half and the captain, Steph Houghton, handed her the captains band. But by then she was inconsolable.

Three months later, in May 2016, the FA invited Aluko to participate in a confidential culture review about her experiences as a black woman in the England team. She agreed to a phone interview in which she said that she felt demoralised, and that under Sampsons management her negative experiences outweighed the positive ones.

Twelve days later, she was visited by Sampson at Chelseas ground and told she was being dropped from the England squad for un-Lionness behaviour and a bad attitude in the previous camp. A shocked Aluko asked for examples. Sampson told her she had been withdrawn and that her behaviour differed depending on whether or not she was in the starting lineup. Aluko hasnt played for England since.

Eniola
Aluko gives evidence to the digital, culture, media and sport committee in October 2017. Photograph: AFP/Getty Images

She was convinced she had been dropped because Sampson had found out about the supposedly confidential culture review. In June, she wrote to the FA with a grievance report. In August 2016, the head of elite development finally replied, insisting the two were unrelated. The FA told her it would investigate her allegations, but at the same time announced that its Integrity Unit was investigating a consultancy role Aluko had with a football agency. The FA concluded that she would have to stop working for the agency or quit football, because she was in breach of FA intermediary roles. Aluko argued there was no conflict of interest, but surrendered her paid role.

She began to think she wasnt simply involved in a spat with the England management, but that she was at war with the FA. And, as far as Aluko was concerned, the FA was playing dirty.

***

Aluko calls herself an accidental whistleblower. She never planned to sacrifice her career on the altar of justice; she just planned to alert the confidential review to inappropriate behaviour. In a way, she says, all she has ever wanted to do is quietly conform and get on with playing football. But Aluko has always stood out.

Her parents, Sileola and Daniel, moved the family from Lagos to Birmingham when Aluko was six months old. Daniel returned to Nigeria to pursue a career in politics, while Sileola worked first as a nurse and then for a pharmaceutical company, bringing up her children in England. From the age of five, Aluko was the only girl on her estate who played football. She and her younger brother, Sone, also a professional footballer, spent their free time honing their skills. Until she went to secondary school, she says, she never had a female friend. Her football-playing male friends called her Eddie, because it was a bit easier than Eni and a lot easier than Eniola.

Some parents were hostile to Aluko playing football particularly as she was better than their sons. The young Eni was told she was different from all the other girls. She knows she should have been proud, but she felt crushed. If I was talking to my young self, Id say: dont be afraid to be individual. Because I was afraid to be different. When the parents at school said: Whys a girl playing football? it made me feel alien.

It wasnt only football ability that differentiated the Alukos. While the other children on the estate spoke with a broad Brummy accent, Sileola insisted Eni and Sone spoke the Queens English. They might have been living a working-class life, but they did not have working-class roots. In Nigeria, their father had become a prominent politician. Meanwhile, at school, she began to learn how complex prejudice can be. I didnt get racism from the white girls, but I got really bad bullying from the black Caribbean girls who saw something in me that they didnt understand. They used to call me African bhuttu, which was patois for unsophisticated. And they called me Coconut because I spoke well and hung around with white people.

At the age of 15, she joined Birmingham City Ladies, where her coach Marcus Bignot labelled her the Wayne Rooney of womens football; like Rooney, she was short and muscular with an explosive burst of pace. That year, she was called up to the England youth squad. At her first camp, her skills made her stand out. I flicked the ball over somebodys head, brought it down and did a Cruyff turn and Hope Powell [Sampsons predecessor at England] stopped the session and said: Its not the Eni show. I remember thinking: well, Im not going to do that again. Ill just get it and pass it. Now she says she wishes she had followed her instincts it would have made her a better player. For her, that was a big difference between the boys and girls games while boys were encouraged to nurture their individuality, girls were scolded for it.

Eniola
Aluko was once labelled the Wayne Rooney of womens football. Photograph: Perou/The Guardian

Despite that desire to conform, there was already something unusually forthright about her. After discovering her cousin Fola had become a high-flying lawyer in New York, and reading To Kill A Mockingbird, she decided she wanted to become Atticus Finch and save lives. By then, Aluko says, she saw an injustice lurking on every corner. A boy in her class was bullied for his afro. Rather than defending him, the school banned afros. Aluko was outraged not least because one boy had long, dyed-green hair and nothing was said about it. She went to see the headteacher, who heard her out and told her she was changing the rules enforcing short hair for all the boys. It taught her that justice doesnt always look the way you want it to. That Christmas, the school awarded her a special prize for speaking up for others.

***

After Aluko put her grievance into writing in 2016, an internal investigation cleared Sampson and the management team of any wrongdoing. Aluko threatened to take the FA to court. The FA held a second investigation, this time hiring the barrister Katharine Newton to examine the evidence. In March 2017, it again cleared Sampson and his staff of wrongdoing, but Aluko was paid 80,000 in an out-of-court settlement.

In August that year, the findings were leaked to the Daily Mail, along with information about the settlement. Aluko was horrified by the way she was portrayed. The Mail did not mention the racism, only that Aluko had made allegations of bullying and harassment against Sampson and his staff. It suggested that the FA paid her the money only because it wanted to avoid disruption in the buildup to Euro 2017, that she was making problems because she had lost her place in the squad, and that her teammates didnt like her. In fact, the payout was for loss of earnings.

As for the report itself, Aluko calls it a shambles. It basically said: Eni lied about racism. Mark Sampson never said anything racist. The team is very happy. Weve interviewed a lot of players, and they say its a great culture. How did she feel when she saw it? I was gutted. Gutted. I was publicly being called a liar.

Does she think the FA set out to destroy her? She nods. It wasnt about Mark Sampson any more. It was about Eni Aluko versus the FA David versus Goliath. The PR machine of the FA was Make Eni look as bad as possible. It was a smear campaign.

Did anything ring true? Well, she says, the report was accurate that she had become withdrawn. Im an optimistic, positive person normally, but I was miserable during that time. You have a lot of downtime on England camps, so I was in my room on my own trying to get through it. I didnt really socialise with anybody. How did she cope? I have a strong faith in God. Id watch stuff from my favourite preachers about opposition and how to face adversity. Did she lose faith at any point? No, I think my faith got stronger, because in that period thats all I had.

***

In August 2017, Aluko told her side of the story to Daniel Taylor of the Guardian (she is now a columnist for the sports pages of this paper). She revealed that Sampson had made the Ebola comment and asked an unnamed mixed-race England player how many times she had been arrested. A month later, Spence told the FA that she was the player in question and that everything Aluko had said was true. The Professional Footballers Association called for a new investigation, accusing the FA of holding a sham review that was not designed to establish the truth, but intended to protect Mark Sampson.

Five days after Spence came forward, England played Russia. Every member of the team raced to the bench to celebrate with Sampson after Nikita Parris scored the opener for England in a 6-0 win. Aluko says that was when she finally cracked. I cried my eyes out when I saw that. Players can celebrate how they want, but in the midst of the case I just thought it was too much. I felt really, really low at that point.

A day later, the FA sacked Sampson out of the blue, stressing that it was nothing to do with the racism allegations. It emerged that he was forced out because of a relationship he had had with a player three years earlier when he was managing Bristol Academy. In January 2019, Sampson received a payout from the FA for unfair dismissal.

Eniola
Aluko says she is comforted by the number of female footballers who have spoken out in the past couple of years. Since her case, the American womens team have pursued an equal pay dispute. And Ada Hegerberg, Norways top player has said: I dont like the way things are happening [regarding unequal pay]. Photograph: Perou/The Guardian. Adidas Originals track top 74.95, Adidas Originals, adidas.co.uk.

A third investigation was ordered into Alukos allegations and, in October 2017, Newton concluded that Sampson had racially abused Aluko and Spence. While stressing that she did not regard Sampson as a racist, Newton said: I have concluded that, on two separate occasions, Sampson has made ill-judged attempts at humour, which, as a matter of law, were discriminatory on the grounds of race within the meaning of the Equality Act 2010. The FA apologised to Aluko and Spence.

A month later, the FA was accused of a cover-up after saying that Kendall would not face action, while concealing the fact that he had admitted putting on a mock Caribbean accent to Aluko. Kendall resigned as goalkeeping coach and apologised to her.

This January, 16 months after losing his job, Sampson also apologised to Aluko and Spence, saying: As a white male, I needed to do more and Ive worked hard to educate myself. I spent six weeks with Kick It Out on their educational course for equality and diversity. I need to play a more active role in making a difference. Its something I will do for the rest of my life.

***

How did Aluko feel when she read the final report? Elated. Vindicated. Since the FAs apology, she says, they have been building bridges. After the case, they asked me to be part of the recommendations with UK Sport to build whistleblowing procedures. Where possible, she says, she wants to forgive. Forgiveness is an action, a decision. I had a decision to make. Am I going to hold on to a lot of this pain and frustration with how they treated me, or am I going to try to build a lasting relationship that will impact change moving forward? I had the opportunity to try to do something that was positive with the FA and I did that.

Have fellow players apologised to her? Silence. Erm a few of the Chelsea girls have, yeah. She mentions her former Chelsea teammates Fran Kirby and Karen Carney close friends and women she hugely respects. As for Spence, Aluko says their relationship is stronger than ever. Drew is somebody I probably speak to every other day more than anyone else in football. But Aluko is less forgiving towards members of the squad for not supporting her. To this day, Steph Houghton and a lot of leaders in that team have not come out and apologised to me for what I went through. People say: Dyou want them to sacrifice their careers for you? No, I dont. But I do expect a team of people to say: we do not share these values, we do not accept that what the manager said was correct. She bangs the table as she talks.

Would she go for a drink with them now? No. With quite a few of them, categorically no. Because what they represent is fundamentally the opposite to me. In what way? Just not being able to come out and say: for my teammate to go through this, for racism to be even talked about in this team, is unacceptable.

In June 2018, Aluko left England to play for Juventus. She has enjoyed a hugely successful year there winning the league and cup double, finishing the season as the clubs top scorer. But, despite her impressive form, Aluko did not make the England squad for this years World Cup.

Does she ever think how differently life might have turned out if she had kept her mouth shut? Yes. This summer I was doing media at the World Cup. But Im only 32 and I could have played. I think my England career would have lasted longer than it did. At the point I decided to tell the story, I knew it was going to cost me my England career.

She pauses, then says something surprising. And thats a very powerful position to be in. Why? Because a lot of players, all they can think about is their pay cheque and the fact that they want to play football, so they dont say anything. So they dont end up leaving any legacy for the next person who comes along, and its going to happen to them, too. I would like to think that, next time a player complains about something going on, and not just a black player, it wont be accepted.

One thing that has comforted her is the number of female footballers who have spoken out in the past couple of years. Im not going to take credit for this, but, since my case, both the Australia and New Zealand womens teams have publicly complained about the culture of fear; the American womens team are in an equal pay dispute and probably going to win. Ada Hegerberg, Norways top player and the best player in the world, said: I dont like the way things are happening [regarding unequal pay]. Im not playing in the World Cup. There are many examples of women standing up and saying: were not having this any more.

Unfortunately, this list includes few of her former teammates. Not surprisingly, she says, they now seem uncomfortable when they see her.

Will she ever make up with them? Aluko shakes her head. I dont need to. My life has moved on. Everybody knows what I stand for. That is far more powerful than being an England player who puts on an England shirt and plays well. As much as the England management and the FA, Aluko feels bitterly betrayed by her own colleagues. I would much rather be where Im sat than where theyre sat, because people question them to this day. People say it to me all the time: I find it difficult to support the womens team because of how they behaved. We all have moments in life when our fundamental morals are called into question. In the face of what happened to me, they did nothing. People remember that.

An exclusive extract from Alukos memoir: No one could teach me how to navigate this hyphenated identity

It was being called up to play for England that made me understand I wasnt officially British. Not yet, at least. Not on paper.

A few months after I joined the youth team of Birmingham City Ladies, in 2001, we were scheduled to play a tournament in Warwick, and our coach Marcus Bignot told us England scouts would be there. The final whistle blew on the tournament and I jogged over to my dad, who was visiting from Nigeria. One of the scouts approached, told me Id played well, took my details and said hed be in touch. That was it.

It wasnt long before the first letter from England landed on our doorstep. Mum! I called out. England want me to go to an under-15s trial! Later, she got the letter framed and hung it in the hallway. I think she saw it as something that anchored us even deeper in the UK; one of us could be representing the country.

The trial was at Loughborough University. As the date approached, Mum started to worry about what I was going to wear. Appearances have always been important to her. I told her Id just wear my training stuff, but she wouldnt hear of it. The week before the trial, we went shopping and bought a pencil skirt, a collared shirt, a suit jacket and high heels to match.

The day came and Mum drove me up to Loughborough. Parents were invited to stay for a short introductory briefing with the manager, Hope Powell. We pulled into the car park and I spotted a couple of other girls walking into the building.

Oh, God, I said, horrified. Theyre all wearing tracksuits.

We stepped inside the building, my stomach doing backflips. Thirty or 40 girls sat with their parents, every one of them in a tracksuit and trainers. I swear I heard a murmur ripple around the room, as the girls looked round and nudged each other. I lowered my head and clip-clopped over to a seat in the far back corner. A few minutes later, Powell walked into the room and launched into a business-like introduction. I didnt hear a word she said. The second the talk was over, I jumped up and ran off to change into my training gear. Ive never lived it down.

A few weeks later, a letter arrived saying Id been picked for a week-long camp. I scanned the letter and took it into the kitchen to show to Mum. I began reading it out loud, then I stopped. Oh no, I said. Mum, they want me to bring my passport. What are we going to do? Mum frowned. She had applied to make us all British citizens, but the paperwork, the checks, the tests it all took a long time. It had never crossed my mind I would need to be naturalised as British to play for England. We had leave to remain, which meant we could stay in the country as long as we wanted.

I felt entirely British. Id lived in England my whole life; it was the only home I knew. I was so tired of being the odd one out. I felt a familiar despair rising, one I was coming to associate with my British-Nigerian identity.

Passports were a big deal for the Nigerian community in the UK. A red British passport was a prized possession for those who had been in the UK long enough to own one alongside the Nigerian document, known as a green pali. To hold a British passport was a gateway to the world. Mum mentioned our problem to Dad, to her Nigerian friends and family. Listen, said one uncle, who liked to flaunt that he was a British citizen by birth. If she dares show up with green pali, theyll send that child straight back. She has to be Britico now, dont you know that?

I felt like an alien in my own country. If I wasnt British, then what was I? I thought back to my last visit to Nigeria. I felt like a foreigner there, too.

Every day Id wake up and hope the document would drop on to the doormat. Every day it wasnt there and the camp was another day nearer.

In the end, I took an acknowledgement from the Home Office proving Mum had applied for naturalisation, together with a note she wrote. It was all we had. Thankfully, the coaches were more relaxed than expected.

A few months later, my passport finally arrived. Mum emptied the burgundy books out on to the table, alongside our Nigerian documents. Now you can travel wherever you want, she said.

I saw for the first time what this process meant. Getting a red passport was more than a formality. It was about status. She had been an adult when she first came to the UK, and all this time she had been a foreigner. She had worked hard to forge new paths for herself and her children. I turned over the little red book in my hand and stroked the gold coat of arms on the front. I picked out my old Nigerian passport and held it in my other hand. Two passports, two identities.

No one could teach me how to navigate this hyphenated identity. For me, being British-Nigerian is a tightrope Ill be on for the rest of my life. And whenever I wobble, or feel others are trying to pull me in one direction or the other, I grab on to my hyphen and remember Ill always be both.

They Dont Teach This by Eniola Aluko is published by Yellow Jersey Press (14.99). To order a copy for 10.99, go to guardianbookshop.com. Free UK P&P on online orders over 15. Phone orders minimum P&P of 1.99.

If you would like a comment on this piece to be considered for inclusion on Weekend magazines letters page in print, please email weekend@theguardian.com, including your name and address (not for publication).

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/football/2019/aug/24/lot-of-england-team-still-havent-apologised-eni-aluko-after-whistleblowing

Read More

Age is no barrier: meet the world’s oldest top athletes

Richard Godwin catches up with five pensioners, aged up to 108, who thrive on extreme exercise


Edwina Brocklesby: triathlete, 76, Kingston-upon-Thames

I didnt do any exercise at all until I was 50. I remember trying out for the long-jump team at university for a laugh and I couldnt move for two weeks afterwards. So that was the end of my athletics career. And then I had three children and I was busy with my job. I was a social worker and ran two adoption agencies.

One day, I went to see an old friend from Nottingham University who was running a marathon. I thought that would be fun to do, at least a half marathon, anyway. I came back and told my husband and he laughed and said I wouldnt even be able to run as far as Northampton, which was about three miles from where we lived at the time. Its good to have a challenge like that! Sure enough, it did inspire me to run my first half marathon.

Then my husband died when I was 52. By then I had a small group of running friends and they were brilliantly supportive. I trained as a counsellor myself, but I found running better than counselling for dealing with grief. For one, you always feel better after youve been for a run as the endorphins kick in. But I think what is more important is the social element. Youre with people who support you and value you. You can talk if you want to, or you can be silent if you want to.

The running club was only small, but it did have one place in the London Marathon and thats when it became more serious for me. I ran my first marathon in 1996, when I was 53. I moved to London and became a member of the Serpentine Running Club and, with them, I completed my first London Triathlon when I was 58. I dont have an anterior cruciate ligament in either knee my daughter told me that Id need surgery if I kept pounding the streets like I used to and thats how I got into cycling and swimming as theyre a little easier on the joints. When I started swimming, at 56, I couldnt do crawl at all and swam breaststroke with my head above water like most women of my age. But swimming is a wonderful feeling. It might have something to do with our spending the first nine months of our gestation suspended in water.

Theres so much evidence that if you keep physically active, you dont experience some of the difficulties associated with ageing. There are lower rates of type 2 diabetes among the active, but falling over is the biggest thing. If you can keep your bone and muscle strength up, youre less likely to fall and you might also be able to prevent yourself from hitting the ground if you do fall. Falls are one of the things that costs the NHS the most money.

Im getting slower as I get older, of course I am. I do manage to run 5k, but I walk a bit more. I feel lucky that I can still jog along the Thames.

Edwina Brocklesby is the director of Silverfit, a charity that promotes physical activity among ageing people. She is also the UKs oldest Ironman triathlete. She was recently awarded the British Empire Medal

Eddy Diget: personal trainer, 74, Milton Keynes

Eddy
Mature people are much more aware of the goodness that can come out of training: Eddy Diget. Photograph: Pl Hansen/The Observer

Ive always trained: cross-country running; ice skating; roller skating; fencing; cycling I represented England in the Commonwealth Games in Perth 1962 in diving and swimming. Ive been doing weight training for about 45 years now and I was British bodybuilding champion twice, once at 58 and once at 68. Ive been a stuntman. I was a medical officer in the Royal Navy. And I have been recognised as a Shaolin Master for my commitment to Chinese martial arts. Some Shaolin monks turned up at my studio in Oxford Brookes one day in their saffron robes and presented me with a piece of parchment. I broke down and wept. It was such an honour.

In a way, I have my father to thank. He was an extremely aggressive man. A big man, too. He used to knock me and my mother about quite a bit. The only way I could escape from him was to be outside and thats how I discovered sport.

One day, when I was 16, I was fishing at Tooting Bec ponds when my mum came round with a black eye. She said: Joes in a real bad mood. Hes coming to find you. All of a sudden, my father came down the hill and started punching me. I think I was coming up to a brown sash in kung fu at the time and I just tore into him. It was over in seconds, 16 years of pent-up fear and hate. I blinded him in one eye, which I wasnt happy about. But after that we were the best of mates. And he was a different man. A respectful man. He never touched my mother again.

People have become more educated about being fit over the years, especially the over-50s and over-60s. Mature people are much more aware of the goodness that can come out of training.

But younger people in particular are looking for a quick fix. The personal trainers are all 10mg of this, 10mg of that. Its become too complicated. You see the same people come into the gym every day, doing the same exercises. Its so they dont have to think about it. But the more you change it, the more results youll get.

I am a rehab consultant, so I train people who have had cancer, wheelchair users, people with chronic regional pain syndrome, amputees. But I also train Ironmen, ultra-marathon runners and an Olympic fencer. It really is an extreme diversity of clients and I feel incredibly privileged and humbled to do it. Personal training is not really about the training, its much more to do with the person.

Id never been ill in 74 years, never even been inside a hospital. But last year, thanks to the NHS bowel screening programme, I learned I had bowel cancer. I went in on the 19 November at 11am and came out a 8.30pm with a whole section removed. Im pleased to say Ive never had any pain at all because of my fitness. The consultant commented on it before my surgery. He said: I dont see many people with your stamina or your outlook. But Im a fatalist. Theres nothing I can do about it. Im just pleased I caught it. And now I feel fabulous. I feel on top of the world.

Eddy Diget is a stuntman, model and personal trainer at the DW Fitness First gym in Milton Keynes

Gwyn Haslock: surfer, 73, Truro

Gwyn
I entered my first competition in 1965 as the only woman, and then I was the first proper British ladies champion in 1969: Gwyn Haslock in Cornwall. Photograph: Sarah Lee/The Guardian

My family always used to go to the sea when I was growing up. We all started surfing in the 1950s on the north coast of Cornwall with wooden belly boards, which are like planks of wood. Then the lifeguards started to import Malibu longboards, which were 10ft long, and before long they started making them there in Newquay. I bought a secondhand one and started properly surfing in 1965.

I wasnt what youd call a typical surfer like in the Beach Boys songs. A lot of the good surfers worked in the surfing trade, in surf shops and so on, but I worked for the council as a shorthand typist. It was very 9 to 5, but I surfed at weekends.

I just liked the sea. And when I saw people standing up as if they were walking across the water, I thought, Id like to have a go at that. It took me about a month before I could stand up and a year before I got any style. I entered my first competition in 1965 as the only woman, and was the first proper British ladies champion in 1969. But like any sport, youre always learning.

I always say to people, the most important thing with surfing is paddling. Youve got to paddle out, so you have to duck dive under the waves or push yourself over them. Then youre out the back, as we call it. Youll see a lovely wave coming, paddle for it and up you get. You need to be fit to build up the momentum and then its like floating in air, but across the wave. Sometimes its just seconds, sometimes the wave peels and it can go on and on. Sometimes at Fistral, you get nice long rides right along the beach. But the conditions are never the same and it always tests you.

Ive never seen any sharks in Cornwall. I have surfed near dolphins and you do see seals sometimes. I sprained my wrist once, but Ive never had any bad accident. I know my limits and now I wear my helmet. I want to enjoy it.

I never married. I lived with my mother until she died seven years ago, and Ive been retired for eight years now. When I was working, I couldnt go surfing in the week so much, but now I can go whenever I like, which is good as it gets busy at weekends. Back in the 60s there was a lot more water space it wasnt like now when everyones in there. I like playing tennis, too. I do a bit of fencing. Gardening. Theres lots of things to do.

Ive surfed in Wales, Ireland, France and once in Portugal. Australia and New Zealand they dont appeal to me at all. I did go to California on holiday once and we drove through Malibu and I wasnt that impressed with it to be honest. We have plenty of surf down here, why do I need to go anywhere else?

Gwyn Haslock was Britains first competitive female surfing champion

Ida Keeling: sprinter, 104, Harlem, New York

Ida
I go to the gym, ride my bike, work out, stretch, reach, do push-ups: Ida Keeling with her daughter. Photograph: Poon Watchara-Amphaiwan

I was 67 when I started running. I had lost my two sons to drug-related violence in 1978 and then in 1981. It was so quick. They were stabbed up or shot up or whatever they did to them. Too quick. No warning. It just broke me. I was very depressed.

My daughter Cheryl came by one day and saw I was down in the dumps. That isnt usually who I am. She wanted to take me out for a mini run and since I was already so down I said: All right, go ahead. And it did good for me. It kept me moving. I could feel myself getting stronger and feeling more free. It helped me immensely. And Im still running now.

I grew up in Harlem, USA, in San Juan Hill they call it Hells Kitchen now. I was one of eight children. Everybody was poor. There was already a Depression there even before they called it a Depression. But there are happy memories. Children dont have to pay rent. My dad took us to Central Park on his day off from the factory. We had a good time, looking at all the fishes swimming and doing all the things children do: run, play, jump, roll and all that type of stuff. In the summertime when it was hot, the police department would put a sprinkler on top of the fire hydrants for the children to play in.

We hung swings from the fire escapes at the back of buildings. And on Saturdays the bigger boys from around the corner would turn up with a pail and a couple of wooden spoons to drum on it and wed do the Charleston, the drag, and everything else. We played hooky from school to go and watch the Lindy Hop dancers at the Apollo. We had some good times coming from bad times. But Harlem changed when drugs came in. Everybody wanted to make this quick money. And it dragged in my sons.

I felt like I was being held in a grip, or like I was in a bag or something. But the more I ran, the faster and stronger I became. As I was running like crazy, I released the hold that death had on me. From then on, I belonged to track and field. I said, shoot, sprinting is faster. Im not going to do all this long-distance, Im going to sprint. I wanted to go as fast as I could.

Now Im 104, Im not so fast. But I go whatever distance I can and if I start a race, I finish it. Im always the winner for my age group as I dont have no competition. Im usually chasing myself. But I go with what Ive got left. I go to the gym, I ride my bike, I work out, I stretch, I reach, I do push-ups, I do upper weights, I get on the floor and turn my feet up over my head, and when I dont get out, I stay right here and work out in my room. Im as healthy as a 25-year-old, my doctor says. I have no intention of slowing down. Age aint got nothing to do with it. When you really want to do something for yourself, go and do it. And if you fail, try, try, try again.

Fauja Singh: marathon runner, 108, Redbridge

Fauja
Freedom for me is being independently mobile: Fauja Singh, who ran a marathon at 89 and stills walks 5m a day. Photograph: Hindustan Times via Getty Images

I was born in a village in Punjab in India in 1911. My memories are of a simple life without the stresses that people all over the world seem to have nowadays. I came from a farming family, and we learned to live within our means after working hard and honestly. We remembered God and were thankful to him. We shared with others less fortunate than ourselves. This is in keeping with the three tenets of my Sikh religion.

I had a happy childhood and I was nurtured because I was weak. I couldnt walk until l was five. I wanted to be sporty, but until then, I lacked the strength. But I enjoyed watching all the simple sporting activities that were prevalent in the rural environment at the time. And I remember the joy all around me when I became strong enough to be able to walk.

As I never went to school, I farmed all of my working life. It was always handy to be able to run after straying cattle, but that was about as exciting as it got.

I didnt really run competitively until I arrived in England 20 years ago.

Since then I have been looked after by one of my two remaining sons this is the Asian culture where the parents are looked after by their children. I dont speak English and not being able to communicate with those whom you meet does pose problems, but a smile always helps. I am usually accompanied, but over time I have become familiar with the routes and places I visit regularly. It must be equally frustrating for those who want to communicate with me. One thing is for sure: shouting or saying things slowly does not make it easier this is what I observed from tourists visiting other countries! Being illiterate and monolingual does have its advantages I am not aware of any abuse that may be directed at me. Anyone who is different sadly suffers this in the modern world.

When I attempted to run a marathon for the first time at 89, the reactions were mixed. Some were excited to see if I could do it and wished me well, others doubted I could do it. Those who have been constant in supporting me were my coach, Harmander; my running club, Sikhs in the City; and my family.

Training was easy: I just followed the instructions of my coach without question. If it was a training run, he never let me be exhausted as he said it is good to train but not so good to strain. When it came to the race, I was simply awestruck by the support from the crowds along the route. My coach always ran alongside me and held me back from exerting myself too much in the early stages of the race. He then encouraged me to keep going later on in the race, when the going got tough. I also then started talking to God to help me get through to the finish.

I dont think I ran competitively in the true sense it was simply a case of me finishing a distance as fast as I could. My records seem to be simply a by-product of my age. Records are meant to be broken and I wish the person who breaks my records all the best. If running a marathon at my age has inspired others to not give up then I am pleased to have had a positive impact on society.

My last race was the Hong Kong 10km in 2013 when I was 101. Currently, I am not able to run as I have a hernia, but I remember fondly the feeling of freedom when I used to run not so long ago. I am just pleased that I am still mobile and independent. I still walk about five miles each day.

Freedom for me is being independently mobile, and retaining a sound mind and a positive outlook. The rest is up to God.

Fauja Singh has been awarded the British Empire Medal. He is thought to be the oldest person to complete a marathon, but as India did not issue birth certificates in 1911, the record is deemed unofficial. This interview was translated by Harmander Singh

  • Comments on this piece are premoderated to ensure discussion remains on topics raised by the writer. Please be aware there may be a short delay in comments appearing on the site.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/global/2019/apr/07/age-is-no-barrier-meet-the-oldest-top-athletes

Read More

Spandex snobbery smackdown: why the liberal elite snubs wrestling

The sport has drama, showmanship, and gender equality as the film Fighting With My Family proves. Yet, because its working class, its marginalised, writes director Stephen Merchant

In 2014, after years of struggle, a working-class British woman, aged just 21, was awarded the highest honour her profession can bestow, live, in front of 20,000 people and a television audience of millions.

The Guardian didnt report it. In the days following, there were no laudatory profiles, no in-depth interviews, no op-eds about her stratospheric success in a male-dominated world.

Saraya-Jade Bevis, known professionally as Paige, is a World Wrestling Entertainment superstar. She began her career wrestling with her family in small venues across Norfolk, before climbing to the top of WWE, the billion-dollar US sports entertainment empire, to become the youngest ever Divas champion, the wrestling equivalent of heavyweight champion of the world.

I like to think Im culturally aware, but I had never heard of Paige. And I dont blame the Guardian, or the other broadsheets; they have no duty to report on any entertainer (professional wrestling is as much performance as sport). Nevertheless, it is interesting to compare the attention Paige received with that conferred on other British performers.

In the past 18 months, Claire Foy and Olivia Colman have deservedly won major awards for their brilliant portrayals of English queens. Both wins came with lengthy interviews and profile pieces in the quality newspapers, plus countless mentions on BBC TV and radio.

I have worked with both these actors and they deserve every plaudit and column inch that comes their way. But acting, like pro wrestling, is another branch of show business. Foy and Colman have been rightly celebrated for cracking the US and conquering Hollywood, so why not Paige, who cracked America and conquered WWE (the Hollywood of wrestling) three years earlier?

Over the years, Paige has featured in the Sun and other British tabloids, but the respectable middle-class media has largely ignored her. Why? Is it because Paige is a brash, blue-collar girl from East Anglia with heavy eye makeup and goth-rock stylings? Is it because wrestling is dismissed as frivolous, silly pantomiming for the great unwashed the same people who probably voted for Brexit? Is the reason you have never heard of her good old-fashioned snobbery?

I only found out about Paige three years ago, when I was contacted out of the blue by Dwayne The Rock Johnson. A former WWE superstar, Johnson was working in London in 2012 and one night in his hotel room happened to catch a Channel 4 documentary about Paige and her family. (I love picturing this scene. In my mind The Rock is chilling in a Travelodge, hes just finished the free shortbread and an episode of Grand Designs, and on comes this film )The Bevis family are flawed, rowdy and rough around the edges, but love one another deeply, and wrestling almost as much. Mum, dad, son and daughter all wrestle, and in 2010 the siblings got the chance to audition for WWE. It was a once-in-a-lifetime shot at making the family dream come true, but only Paige was signed; her brother, Zak, was left behind. What happened next almost tore the family apart.

Having come from a wrestling family, Johnson was riveted by Paiges story and later became tangentially involved in her career. Realising her story would make a great film, he reached out to me to write the script. (I suspect Johnson only has two Englishmen in his phone me and Jason Statham and he clearly realised that what I lacked in charisma and muscle definition, I made up for in typing speed.)

Dwayne
Dwayne The Rock Johnson (left) and Vince Vaughn in Fighting With My Family. Photograph: Robert Viglasky/AP

I sat down to watch the documentary, expecting to sneer at Paige and her family. Instead, I fell in love with them.

I went to meet the Bevis clan in their small house on a council estate in Norwich. I discovered the documentary was just the first act of a bigger narrative, one thats not really about wrestling at all, in the same way that Billy Elliot isnt really about ballet. The Bevis saga is a coming-of-age tale in which the kids and the parents were forced to grow up a funny, emotional, tough, tender, inspiring and uplifting story that just happened to involve people in threadbare tights throwing each other about.

Paige moved to Florida aged 18 to join WWEs intense training regime. She was a teenage mix of insecurity and arrogance, and often clashed with trainers and her fellow newbies, refining her raw talent in front of rowdy crowds, slowly proving herself to her paymasters and audiences while navigating the loneliness of life 4,000 miles from home.

Stephen
Stephen Merchant. Photograph: Taylor Jewell/Invision/AP

I decided that if I was going to make a film telling Paiges story it must appeal both to wrestling fans and people like me who know nothing about her. You dont need to like boxing to enjoy Rocky, and you dont need to like Paiges sport to love her journey. As I researched the script, I started to understand wrestling. I finally began to get its appeal when one performer described it to me as a soap opera in spandex, in which the wrestlers tell stories with their bodies.

I also discovered that the wrestling world has not always been a pioneer in gender equality. For instance, WWEs female performers were often relegated to filler matches, nicknamed bathroom breaks by fans waiting for the next clash of brawny men. Pleasingly, however, Paige and her fellow female wrestlers have, in recent years, spearheaded what has become known as the womens revolution, gaining more respect and airtime for the women of WWE, and garnering a passionate fanbase among audiences of all genders.

While we were editing the film, the #MeToo and Times Up movements swiftly reached the public consciousness, and opened up a much-needed discussion about gender equality and inclusivity in all areas of life, including cinema.

The fact that my movie had a female protagonist suddenly felt more significant, although I had been drawn to Paiges story not so much because she is a woman, but because she struck me as a classic movie underdog and her teenage dreams of making it in the entertainment world chimed with my own experience. Only when I started writing the script did her gender become a bigger factor, along with something else: her class.

My grandad was a bricklayer and my dad is a retired plumber, so I felt an affinity with the Bevis family, who are wrestlers but also resolutely working class. I began thinking about how many films (at least those that hope to reach general audiences) have working-class British women as their leads.

Jack
Jack Lowden as Paiges brother, Zak, and Florence Pugh as Paige in Fighting With My Family. Photograph: Robert Viglasky/AP

There are many fine films that portray British working-class lives, including modern classics by directors such as Andrea Arnold, alongside socially conscious auteurs such as Mike Leigh and Ken Loach. These films are often brutally authentic and uncompromising, which means the multiplexes sometimes run shy of them so they become the preserve of the arthouse circuit, which cant always draw in the wider general audience, many of whom are the very people these films are about. This catch-22 can sometimes be particularly pronounced. I recall seeing the excellent Palme dOr winner I, Daniel Blake at a fancy north London arthouse cinema. During the harrowing scene in which Katie (Hayley Squires) is overcome with hunger at a food bank and forced to devour baked beans straight from the tin, I noticed the well-heeled man next to me was misty-eyed while eating roasted tomato hummus and flatbread with a side of Padrn peppers. I sensed the irony escaped him.

With Fighting With My Family, I wanted to take Paiges story to both the arthouse crowd and a wider audience. I wanted to see if I could make a film about working-class people that was neither a gritty, kitchen-sink drama, nor a broad, knockabout comedy. In the years since Paiges title win, and since beginning on my film, there has been a rising and necessary awareness of the under-representation of women, not just in cinema, but in the arts in general. These exclusions have rightly been brought into the light, yet it is revealing that a homegrown female talent like Paige has been overlooked.

While we were eating our hummus and flatbread, there she was, hiding in plain sight. Marginalised for being a working-class wrestler, ignored and unheralded. I hope our film will go some way in correcting this injustice, but I am also left wondering just how many other Paiges are out there.

Fighting With My Family is on release now

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/mar/01/spandex-snobbery-liberal-elite-wrestling-working-class

Read More