Today, Fatima Whitbread, the javelin world champion and world record holder has one main goal and that’s to inspire youngsters to take up sport.
And with that in mind, she has taken on the role as an ambassador for the Personal Best Foundation, created to demonstrate the power of athletics and its ability to change young lives for the good. Like Fatima, the foundation recognises the role athletics has played not just in success in competition, but more importantly how it can have a hugely positive influence on young lives and how it will influence them as they develop successful careers.
They don’t have to be the greatest ever or a world champion like her – although that would be perfectly acceptable, she laughs – all they need to do is get involved and from there they’ll start an amazing journey that will help them in life forever, as it has done for Fatima herself.
A disadvantaged start
"I was abandoned as a baby and spent my first 14 years in children’s homes,” says Fatima, explaining that is only part of the story. Her abusive biological mother neglected her so badly “I was left to die,” says Fatima.
Fortunately, the authorities intervened although she then spent the next six months in hospital as a because of malnutrition before being taken into care. That, however, presented a whole set of new problems and challenges for the young Fatima, who was left to fend for herself. Understandably, she felt sad and lonely, but fortunately discovered a passion for throwing the javelin, which in turn introduced her to a coach who eventually adopted her, Margaret Whitbread.
"Sport was my saviour. For me it was all about throwing – at first rounders balls and then ultimately the javelin, which culminated in a gold medal at the 1987 World Champs."
Path to World Gold
Of course, it was a long path to that title, as she slowly rebuilt her confidence, resilience, motivation and more importantly in the first instance, strength! In 1979 she became the first British thrower to win a European Junior title and in 1981 she broke into world class, improving from 60.14m to 65.82m. Fatima became Britain’s number one in 1982 and the following year she improved to 69.54m before an attack of tonsillitis nearly cost her the chance of competing in the inaugural World Championships in Helsinki. Her doctor advised her to withdraw but she refused to back out. Only the 12th and last qualifier for the final, she let rip with an opening throw of 69.14m. The world title was hers … until with her very last throw the favourite, Finland’s world record holder Tiina Lillak, topped that with 70.82m.
Fatima continued to improve - throwing 71.86m in 1984 to place third in the Olympics. She then progressed to 72.98m in 1985, before her day of days came in a practically deserted Neckarstadion in Stuttgart for the qualifying round at the 1986 European Championships. There she despatched her spear the fabulous distance of 77.44m, not only smashing Tessa Sanderson’s UK record of 73.58m but adding over two metres to the world record held by the East Germany’s Petra Felke to become the first British thrower ever to break a world record. She added a world title to that collection a year later to cap a magnificent career.
How athletics skills can become life skills
“I loved it because throwing is something where you give it your all,” she continues, describing how the training, the camaraderie of a club and the competitions helped her build her confidence.
“I quickly learned about perseverance and sticking at something. If you stick at something it usually comes right in the end. Winning in life is not about taking the top of the podium. It’s about learning and using what you learn from that journey. Sport has helped me find who is the real authentic Fatima Whitbread, not the javelin thrower, but the person who I really am.”
And that person is amazing. For athletics fans she’ll always be recognised as the Essex girl who became the best javelin thrower in the world but using that passion and drive she developed in sport she has become a reality TV star, she’s co-fronted the BBC Learning Campaign – Olympic Give an Hour, and she’s an author, an after dinner speaker and much more. More than 30 years after her athletics career ended, she is still very much in the public eye.
She has had a fantastically varied career and it perfectly demonstrates how sport can transfer the skills it uses – goal setting, determination, responsibility, and accountability – into creating a successful life wherever that may take you. Athletics is the first step on that journey.
“I want to inspire youngsters who come from disadvantaged backgrounds like me.”