Wembley to Atlanta: Michelle Griffith-Robinson's inspiring journey on and off the track

  • Kobe Tong

Michelle Griffith-Robinson lights up every room she walks into – and we can vouch for that.

The former Olympian strode into the GiveMeSport office with the same smile she wore on the runway at Atlanta 1996, chatting to Benny Bonsu and I with the enthusiasm that underpinned her career in athletics. It’s now approaching two decades since Griffith-Robinson hung up her spikes, but time has done little to quell her passion for sport and the issues that surround it.

Keeping an eye on both the standout performances and the wider storylines at play, the British athletics legend has watched the sport evolve in both her presence and absence. Looking back on the modern era of track and field, she explained: “The great thing is, there are so many more athletes out there now that are producing at their very best.

“So whenever you look at Dina Asher-Smith and Asha Philip, they’re always finalists. There’s so many more finalists now and that shows that the support they’ve been getting is having an impact on their performance. I was a World Championship finalist three times but in terms of medalists, there was Ashia [Hansen] who medalled two or three times at the major championships.

“Now, we just seem to be having a few more out there. Of course, I was out there with the golden era: John Regis, Colin Jackson, Sally Gunnell and Linford Christie to name a few. We were great, but now the support that these guys get is definitely more prevalent and they’re younger, they’re doing it much younger than we were.”

Joining the 14-metre club

Just hearing those names from the aptly-christened ‘Golden Era’ is enough to surface memories from Barcelona and Atlanta – a testing epoch for athletes on British shores. Although those past Olympics are punctuated with legendary athletes – Griffith-Robinson included – there wasn’t the glut of finalists and medalists we’ve come to expect post-Athens.

Nevertheless, while Christie became the world’s fastest man and Gunnell took every hurdle in her stride, Griffith-Robinson was quite literally leaping into new territory. “It’s only now, when I’m talking to my two daughters, that I actually look back and think about 14 metres,” the Brit said. “It still ranks as four or five all-time for British triple-jumping. It’s far, it was a great achievement.

“To join it over 10 times as well when it mattered, yeh. It’s just probably only now that I reflect and think: ‘actually, I was pretty good.’ I always wanted to jump 15 metres, but never mind!” It’s with that closing comment that the unwavering desire for improvement so prevalent in elite athletes appears – a quality that’s retraceable to Griffith-Robinson’s hero and very own mother.

‘Humble beginnings’ in Wembley

The 47-year-old has since transferred her motivational skills to public speaking and anecdotes about her mother play an integral when inspiring others. Looking back with great thoughtfulness, she recalled: “I was 11 years old, came from Wembley, a working class family and my mum said to me: ‘you’ve got to come to the track with me because there’s no one to look after you.’

“It was an accident that I went to the track on a Sunday morning. She paid one pound and she still says now that that’s the best investment of a pound she’s ever spent. That was when I really started to find a community, I made friends on the social side of things but I was just an 11-year-old from Wembley with big dreams. 

“That was my beginnings, my humble beginnings. Sport has saved a lot of people, but it also helped me with my home life as well because some times that was turbulent for me. It gave me a focus, I place where I felt safe and I could excel.”

Racist abuse before Atlanta 1996

It’s from that unassuming start and single pound coin that Griffith-Robinson would go on to represent her country at the Olympics. Yet, mere weeks before making the flight across the pond, the British legend was the subject of vile racist abuse and – albeit an isolated incident for her personally – it highlighted a side to sport that is nothing short of emetic.

Having just recently remembered the tale, Griffith-Robinson explained: “I told UK Athletics about it and they told me to write a retort back in the newspaper. I replied saying: ‘I’m born from Wembley, I was born here and I’ve done more to represent my country than you ever have. You’re just a silly minority but you’re not going to spoil my feeling of walking out into that Olympic stadium.'”

It was the perfect response to an ignorant individual who did nothing to stop Griffith-Robinson competing on the biggest sport stage of all.  During that summer in Georgia, the London-born jumper did the nation proud but would ultimately fall short of the podium with Inessa Kravets taking the gold and compatriot Hansen coming close to a bronze.

Representation in the media

Criticising an elite athlete for not winning an Olympic medal is like attacking Alfred Hitchcock for his lack of a ‘Best Director’ Oscar, but Griffith-Robinson certainly felt the long-term impact of her absence from the podium. “It’s because I wasn’t a medalist,” the Brit responded when asked why she wasn’t given a bigger voice in the sport.

“Even though I’ve got the knowledge, I’m articulate, I know what I’m talking about, I’m passionate but I’m not a medalist and that’s where they’re going wrong. It’s doesn’t mean because you’re a medalist that you’ve got the knowledge and the passion, it just means you’re very talented in your event and that’s what’s happened.

“You know, where’s you Tessa Sanderson’s? Where is Tessa? Use her as a great example. One of our best ever female athletes but where is she? It would be great to bring her back, show how things have changed and then you’d get a bigger margin of how things have come on. If you’re not making a big noise and medalling, that’s where it’s at.”

Impacting the lives of others

Considering the sheer amount of black females enjoying success in athletics, the lack of representation in media and broadcasting is certainly alarming. It’s a situation that’s all the more bewildering when you factor in the rise of social media, platforms on which each and every sportsperson can advertise their talents on and off the track.

The deck seems to be stacked against athletes who, despite having great analysis and insight to offer, haven’t enjoyed Olympic or World success. The same can’t be said for other sports, take Formula One for example – Martin Brundle heads the F1 coverage at Sky Sports and it’s a title he justly deserves despite never having won a single grand prix.

However, an absence from the limelight hasn’t stopped Griffith-Robinson from making an impact, quite the opposite. “Sport has allowed me to impact other people’s lives for the better,” she reflected and her aforementioned role in mentorship is a testament to that. In fact, one of her most vivid memories came just a matter of weeks after the birth of her baby son in 2013.

Impacting over 250,000 people

“I walked into this room with 25 young people,” the triple-jumper explained. “I’d just had my baby, I’d had a C-section, and I walked in there and said: ‘right guys, I’m going to be your mentor for the next six to eight weeks. I’ve just had a baby, I’ve had no sleep last night, if you don’t want to be here, don’t waste my time and get out of here.’

“How many people do you think left? None, it’s the best programme I’ve ever run. They saw me vulnerable, they saw me real, they saw me honest. There are times where you don’t want to get out of bed, there are times where things aren’t going well for you, but if you can get up and feel supported along that journey, then you can make things happen.

“I’ve been running these programmes and I’ve had some massive success stories. We’ve impacted over 250,000 young people and it’s something that I’m passionate about. Forget me jumping 14 metres, if I can make people get out of bed in the morning; carve a career for themselves and start to build confidence, then it was worth me getting up on that Sunday morning at 11 years old.”

Battling diabetes in the UK

Griffith-Robinson is able to draw on both her sporting career and personal experience to help others, and that isn’t limited to mentorship. The 47-year-old has been tearing down misconceptions about diabetes, having been diagnosed as pre-diabetic despite her athletics background and a diet that features a monthly chocolate bar at worst.

Empowered to make a difference once again, the former athlete outlined: “If it can happen to me, it can happen to you. The biggest thing for me is to go around different communities and our black, Asian, ethnic minorities are at risk. Let’s not play about, we’ve got to spread that word. So, for me, I’ve changed my family because it’s genetically something within my family.

“I’ve got two daughters who are possibly going to be diabetic too, so it’s for me to start changing their mindset from now. They’re 12 and 15 – no cakes and not too much carbohydrates. I have a choice and my children have a choice, so I say to them: ‘the greener the plate, the better.’ If I can find ways to spread it to my community then, yet again, I’m using my voice as a platform.”

Throw a challenge in Griffith-Robinson’s direction and you better be ready for the response. Throughout her life, she has proven that no obstacle is too big to overcome and no setback is too hard to come back from – passing that wisdom to the next generation along the way. If one pound in Wembley can lead to pricelessness in Atlanta, there can be no better inspiration or example.

Whether it’s making sporting history or tackling modern day problems, Griffith-Robinson is – quite literally – always just a hop, skip and jump away.

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