Let's race beyond the track
On the one hand, the athletics team is one of the most diverse spaces in Cambridge; a place where BAME students thrive in an unprecedented manner. On the other hand, at the highest level, the organisation of the club is almost entirely undertaken by old white men.
Historically, sport at Cambridge University has helped women of colour push the boundaries. One of the first women to ever captain an athletics team was a black woman at Queen’s college, Dr Amma Kyei Mensah, and she was Queen's first ever female ‘blue’ (the name given to a Cambridge University sports team member). This was, no doubt, a game changer. It was an extraordinary achievement for a sporting system that was incredibly inaccessible to the few BAME students that were involved. Not only did she push the boundaries in the sporting arena, but as a captain, in the exact same role that I currently find myself in, I’m certain that she continued to challenge the narrative.
Dr Amma Kyei-Mensah was clearly a pioneer, but I can’t help but wonder whether she ever felt completely at ease in the Cambridge sporting scene? I often think about Amma attending sports meetings. A minority not only because of her race, but also because of her gender, I can confidently say that she would have been the only person of both her gender and race in the room. As the only black female student in her college at the time, being the only person of colour ‘at the table’ would have, no doubt, become a frequent part of her Cambridge experience. Did she feel uncomfortable walking into committee meetings or was she accustomed to this being a necessary obstacle?
Fast forward about 30 years, and I find myself in a similar position today.
Being the current captain of the Cambridge Athletics club, I am the only woman of colour in the senior management meetings of both the Oxford and Cambridge Athletics clubs. Attending these meetings can sometimes feel like I’ve been transported back in time to a Cambridge of a bygone era. It is astonishing that, despite a gap of more than 30 years (from 1982 to 2019), there are still no more women of colour sitting on these joint committees. We have to push for greater access and progression in order to change the current lack of representation. We like to convince ourselves that time can change everything but it is evident that time is stagnant without progressive action. Nevertheless, we can see that Cambridge is moving in the right direction as more and more people of colour are accepted each year. The only problem is the pace.
Well let’s speed up the pace to the field shall we? I’ve always admired the equalising nature of sport, especially my sport - athletics. No one can argue with a time laid down on the track or a distance achieved on the field. In some ways sports should be completely immune to racism. Indeed, history has shown us what a uniting force sport can be; Nelson Mandela wearing the Springbok’s jersey, the black power salute on the Olympic podium. Sport can overcome our greatest divisions, possessing the unique power of being a language we all understand, a global ontological symbol.
The same is indeed true at Cambridge, where we (women of colour) sometimes struggle for visibility within the wider university, athletes of colour excel unreservedly on the sports field. The most successful member of my team, and arguably in the history of our team is a black woman, Dr Amma, and the last three captains have all been black women.
This is what makes the Cambridge sporting scene so paradoxical. We are simultaneously freed from, yet also shackled by the constraints of traditional Oxbridge university life. Whilst the equalising power of sport earlier referred to means that we are able to shine on the sports field, we still seem to be absent when it comes to the organisation and administration of sport in Cambridge.
Of course, these environments might not be exactly comfortable for those of us who are in the minority. However, as a BAME athlete myself, I would say that we must step up and contribute to the organisation of our sporting societies so that in another 30 years time my successor does not have to sit in isolation in a room full of people that could never possibly understand her experience.
We contribute so much to Cambridge sport, it’s about time we claimed equal ownership of it too.