Former international hockey star Kerry Williams has told i she believes she missed out on two Olympic Games because of the colour of her skin.
Williams, whose father is from Antigua and came to the UK when he was six months old, also revealed that she was given a t-shirt with the nickname “Token” and was asked on multiple occasions by officials if she was “playing the race card”.
She played at World Cups, European Championships and Commonwealth Games, but never got the Olympic call.
Williams tells i: “I missed Beijing and I missed 2012 – but I went to all the tournaments in between.”
Now 36, she says her coach told her “it’s not on your performance, it’s not your ability, it’s not your stats: it’s just my opinion”.
Williams adds: “[That] is very difficult as an athlete. And I think that’s why I retired at the time that I did, I was only 26, because I just thought I don’t want to do another four years to have the same result.
“I was grateful for the medals and for being on that journey. But what I didn’t want to do was keep killing myself like I was every day in a system that I didn’t feel was fair for me.”
Does she feel race kept her from being part of the GB squad that won bronze at the London 2012 Olympic Games?
“I think there was an element of it,” she says. “I take it to the fact that the sports at the time that were getting the most funding had a certain demographic and a certain look and feel: cycling, rowing.
“And I think there was a decision that we needed to align ourselves to these sports, because that’s where the funding is going to go.
“I was able to verbalise it, but I was too much of a minority [for anyone to take notice]. And there’s so many excuses that you can put in is that, ‘oh, she doesn’t have this skill’ or ‘this doesn’t have to happen’.
“There’s always ways that you can be managed out of your situation. It’s a subjective sport.
“For years, I’ve said I want my child to just be a sprinter, or swimmer or something that I can say ‘you didn’t hit the time’ because the stopwatch doesn’t lie. That was much easier to comprehend and to work through.”
Williams was unusual in the national team set-up for a number of reasons: she was working class, state school educated, mixed race and came through the club system, rather than the schools game. She also worked for Nike throughout her playing career.
“I actually don’t think that it would be possible for someone to do now, the way that the sport is structured,” says Williams, who is about to start a new job for a wearable tech company.
She played her club hockey for Leicester, one of the most successful teams in the country, helping them to national final success, even scoring a crucial penalty.
However, it was on one such golden day that she was subjected to one of the worst pieces of “banter” over the colour of her skin.
“At the national finals, we all got given shirts before the finals with our nicknames on. And my nickname was ‘Token’ because I was the only person of colour,” Williams revealed to audible gasps at a panel debate on racist “banter” in sport, arranged by the Sporting Equals organisation.
“There was a running joke that I was the only person of colour in the sport. I would never ever say something about someone else’s appearance or something they couldn’t change about themselves, but it was one of those things.
“When everything came out about George Floyd, one of the players that is currently still in the national team rang me and said ‘Have you ever experienced racism?’ and I said ‘What was on my shirt in the national finals?’ and she was thinking ‘What?’. And it was just this real blindness to the banter, [a sense of] ‘that’s something that’s different about you’, whereas if it was someone’s sexuality or something, we would never write something on a shirt.
“It’s one of those things where it’s part of the locker room banter. We were just about to go out and play in the finals. They were our warm-up T-shirts that we were about to put on it, it was being broadcast on TV, like I scored one of the penalties that meant that we won. So it’s something that you learn to just park.
“And I think my Dad has always been amazing at just making sure that those sorts of things didn’t bother us.
“And I’m from Leicester, so I’m from an ethnic majority. So I’ve always been in a [situation] where everyone’s diverse, everyone’s different. So you take people at face value and who they are and how they are to you, as a person.
“So then to be in the elite sport system where you are a minority, it’s different because you can’t understand it. You’ve been flipped out of your everyday life into a new system. But being the minority, it’s not your rules, you have to play to the rules of the institution and of the situation.”
An England Hockey spokesperson told i: “We’re saddened to hear of the experiences Kerry faced while in the England Hockey programme, and we applaud her for speaking out on these challenges more than a decade ago.
“England Hockey is committed to providing a culture in which equality of opportunity, diversity and inclusion are actively promoted and in which discrimination is not tolerated.
“In 2022 we developed a comprehensive equality, diversity & inclusion framework which Kerry very kindly helped us shape, by telling us her story and lived experience.
“England Hockey’s Equality, Diversity and Inclusivity Framework is designed to support everyone in the sport with clear steps that can be taken together to address inequalities that exist within the game. This work is instrumental in shaping the future of the sport in England and we’re very grateful for Kerry’s involvement on this.”