The four-year Olympic cycle can send some athletes spinning forth with success and leave others tangled in the spokes.
For Bianca Williams, there was little to cheer about when those multi-coloured rings were hoisted over Rio de Janeiro. Two years after catching the eyes of British sports fans with her performance at the 2014 Commonwealth Games, where she won medals in the 200 metres and 4x100m relay, the Enfield-born athlete sat alongside them in the capacity of a spectator.
The fact of the matter is that, regardless of how many British athletes might succeed, there will always be hard-working individuals pushed out the exhausts of the Team GB machine. Being selected for the relays, yet never touching the baton in competition is perhaps the cruellest of fates and one that led Williams to question whether she would ever return to the track.
We now, of course, have the luxury of knowing that Williams never left. The 25-year-old raised two fingers to her Olympic demons and re-inherited the British baton to collect gold medals at the 2018 European Championships and Commonwealth Games. However, that isn’t to say that the journey from lead-bound memories in Rio to a golden 2018 was simply the magic of alchemy.
Speaking exclusively to GiveMeSport, Williams harked back to the nadir of her sporting life that has been driving her skywards ever since. “2016 was the worst year of my life,” the sprinter remarked with admirable humour. “In my head, I’ve ripped it up! 2016 didn’t exist, I’ve skipped it out! I didn’t have any consistency, I was going through my last year at university.
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Considering retirement in 2016
“The coach I was with at the time wasn’t giving me their all and I probably wasn’t giving them my all either, so it was a difficult relationship. I left in March and this is Olympic year, so I went to a different coach and just felt like I had to start from the basics again and that’s not what I wanted to do. I ran slow, I ran slower than I’d ever done and it was such a hard pill to swallow. It was so difficult.
“I got to the Olympics, I was selected for the relay and I had a little feeling that I would run in the heats, but it didn’t work out that way for me. I just didn’t want to be there. It got to the point where I just wanted to quit athletics. I was like: ‘Why am I doing this?’ I was getting no support and I knew that I was going to come off the funding that year because I had been warned.”
Life in the fast lane of sprinting bears the same tension with which its competitors run. If your times aren’t catching the eye of sponsors or funding, then the shallow pot of money in the sport is still deep enough to drown in. Williams is more than aware that receiving that GB vest – despite the prestige it brings – doesn’t come with a mansion and sports car in the kitbag.
The tough economics of athletics
With her funding stripped after the Olympics, Williams had to fight for a place at London 2017 without many of the luxurious afforded to her compatriots. Sadly in athletics, wearing the Union Jack isn’t the prerequisite for riches that it might be elsewhere. The 25-year-old joked: “I wish I was living in a four or five bedroom house by now with a swimming pool, indoor cinema and a massive driveway.
“I wish that was the case – I’m still living with my mum! It is difficult. Athletics still feels like an up and coming sport, people only watch it when it’s on TV, which is only like twice a year with the Anniversary Games and the actual championships. Then, when the Olympics come on, but that’s only every four years. It’s not known and it’s not well-paid, unless you have a corporate sponsor.
“It’s hard and if you’re not up there consistently, it’s difficult. We’re not special, we’re not given magic beans that make us run fast every year. Everyone has their own different things that they have to deal with. People have university – the last year of university is so tough – troubles at home, trouble relationship-wise and there’s a lot that goes on behind the scenes. Nobody understands that.”
Inspiring young athletes
There is, just as Williams alludes to, a human as well as an athlete between the white lines on the track. The sad fact is that athletes – when distilled to logos and times – can become as uniform as the apparel they wear or the event they compete in. It’s through portals such as social media, that competitors like Williams can show their lives away from the sport to those that look up to her.
“I think it’s so important to inspire young girls,” the relay medalist expounded. “When I was in school, there wasn’t really anyone to look up to. I remember Christine Ohuruogu, but that was it really. I remember Shelly-Ann winning the 100 metres, but I didn’t really have that person or someone on the track where I was like: ‘oh my gosh, I want to be like her!’ It wasn’t really like that.
“So, I think for us now, it’s so important to come together when we’re in the GB kit and especially as a relay team, it’s so nice for young girls to see that. Especially as the relay team is predominantly black, it’s so nice for young black girls to look at up to us and think: ‘One day, I want to be like you. I want to work hard to achieve my goals.
Life for women in athletics
“You don’t have to be a sprinter, you don’t even have to be an athlete even, you could just be somebody who wants to go to university and conquer all these goals. You can be that person and we lead that path.” There is, after all, great credence in forging a path that, while not littered with Olympic and World medals, overcomes relatable challenges for young girls.
Women are also at a distinct disadvantage in athletics when it comes to starting a family. Making the decision to have children can take away years of competition that the narrow career-span of track and field is never guaranteed to accommodate. Of course, that isn’t to say that it’s impossible and the likes of Dame Jessica Ennis Hill and Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce are testament to that.
What Williams and her peers are campaigning for, however, is greater cooperation from the sport’s various machinations – an all-too topical issue in the wake of Allyson Felix’s case with Nike. Greeting the prospect of having children with a smile, Williams reacted: “Who doesn’t want to have a family? It’s so easy for men, they can have a family and still do what they do.
Starting a family one day?
“For women, it’s at least two and a half years out. That’s nine months of pregnancy, the maternity leave – your child needs you, your child needs to be fed – and a child needs its mother more than its father. To not have money during that period is shocking. It’s really sad. What happens to the next athlete who wants to start a family after the Olympics? Should they just retire then?
“Are they going to have to retire and work at Sainsbury’s? No offence to anyone who works at Sainsbury’s, but you cannot go from being a high-level athlete to doing that. Mentally, you can’t. It’s not right.” Williams is well aware of the challenges that may await in the future and it can only be hoped that the sport is more adept to supporting her when the time comes.
If there’s proof of Newton’s Third Law in the world of athletics, it’s that the sport can often punish its competitors as much as they do the track beneath them. There’s maybe no finer example than Williams who, in reaching sport’s biggest competition and leaving it with retirement on her mind, has stood at ground zero of the discipline’s cut-throat nature.
All eyes on the future
The end result? A comeback of the same timespan as that aforementioned Olympic cycle and hope that Williams can reach Tokyo 2020 for the track-time she deserves. There might not be celebrity status or a London penthouse at the end of the journey, but there’s most definitely the chance for vindication in a career that – for all its up and downs – holds determination at its core.