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by Caley Fretz
February 6, 2020
In his athletic prime, Russell Williams was a multi-time national champion, a sprinter, powerful on the track and the road. The type of rider who, under different circumstances, might have been pulled onto Great Britain’s national track program, supported in his training, been called up for the world championships or Olympics. He was, he claims, afforded no such assistance or opportunity.
“It was because I’m black,” Williams said to CyclingTips over the phone from the Adelaide Hills of South Australia, inside a home touched by the recent bushfires. “It’s hard to say sometimes. There’s nothing else I can think of. You’re doing the times, you’re beating the best people, and they just keep coming back and going ‘Oh, no no, not quite.’”
“It’s sort of devastating when I say it out loud,” he said.
Williams, now 58, was a top track and road racer in the UK through the 80s and 90s. He came forward via a short documentary released quietly on Vimeo last week. We’ve embedded it below. In it, he alleges that decisions made by selectors at British Cycling prevented him from reaching major goals – world championships, the Olympics, and more. He states in no uncertain terms that these decisions were impacted by the color of his skin.
“I could never ride fast enough, or win enough, because of one thing I couldn’t do anything about, the color of my skin,” he says in the video.
The video references a national Madison title in 1997. Williams’ partner was a young Rob Hayles, and Williams claims that selectors promised that a national title would send the duo to the world championships in Perth a month later. The pair had already won the Madison title two years earlier, in 1995. Williams and Hayles won, again, but a world championship invite never came. The silver medal team at nationals, Jon Clay and Bryan Steele, represented Great Britain at worlds in Perth that year. Hayles, a decade younger than Williams, went on to race in the 2000 and 2004 Olympics.
“It doesn’t surprise me that they [promised] him that and then didn’t send him,” Hayles said. “I’ve had that myself on a few occasions, from early days as well. Was it racist? I don’t know. But it’s certainly a way that British Cycling acted with quite a few riders I’ve seen. Tell them to do this or that, make them jump through hoops, and then change their mind. They were definitely a law unto themselves. They weren’t the British Cycling we know today. They didn’t have millions, they were operating on nothing. And I mean nothing.”
Williams won his first British title as a junior in 1976 and piled on more titles over the years. He raced in the United States, winning the Fitchburg-Longsjo Classic in 1984, when that race was one of the biggest on the East coast of the US. He won the sprint classification in the 1989 Tour of Ireland, and piled up titles on the track. Surrounding him on these podiums were riders like Hayles, Clay, Steele, and Robert Muzio, riders who represented Great Britain at the Commonwealth Games, world championships, and more.
“He was a proper pro in as much as he knew the system,” Hayles said. “When you were racing, if there was a local boy, he would look after the local rider, and make them look good, that sort of thing.”
When contacted and presented with Williams’ story, British Cycling responded quickly.
“Russell’s comments are deeply concerning and we will be inviting him to talk with British Cycling and discuss his experiences in more detail,” said a British Cycling spokesman. “Bigotry of any kind is wholly unacceptable and we urge anyone in our sport who believes they have been treated unfairly because of their ethnicity to contact our compliance team at firstname.lastname@example.org. Cycling must reflect the diversity of the society which supports it and we are committed to ensuring the sport in this country is welcoming to all.”
A long thread
The premise of Williams’ allegations — that his athletic ability and results were neither nurtured nor celebrated by British Cycling because of his skin color — is also the conclusion of a body of research conducted by Dr. Marlon Moncrieffe of Brighton University, and an associated exhibition called Made in Britain, Uncovering the Life Histories of Black-British Champions in Cycling that has toured the UK in the last year. Dr. Moncrieffe also presents the work on Twitter and Instagram.
Dr. Moncrieffe said his research points to a pattern of underrepresentation of black-British cyclists within British Cycling’s national program over the course of five decades. It is, at its core, a collection of stories of young, black talent, reaching the markers set before them, only to have promises pulled away and accolades disappear. Williams’ story is one such anecdote.
That research also delves into the career of Maurice Burton, another black-British rider, and the first black-British cycling national champion. He burst onto the scene with a junior national title in 1973 and represented Great Britain at the Commonwealth Games in 1974. That same year, he was booed by fans as he won the 20km scratch title. Two years later, after placing a heavy focus on selection requirements, he was not selected for the Olympic team pursuit squad. In 1977, he moved to Belgium and began a successful eight-year career at the six-day races. He would never return to Britain to race another national championship. “What was the point?” he said in an interview with Pez in 2005.
“My research sees themes, gives a strong whiff that there has been institutional racism in the decisions that selectors and [British Cycling] have made over the last 50 years,” Moncrieffe said.
Williams and Moncrieffe do not make any direct accusations against specific individuals within British Cycling. Williams, in an hour-long interview, would not name names, or point fingers, though he claimed to have provided such details for the purposes of Dr. Moncrieffe’s research. That academic paper, due out this summer, likewise omits key identifying details. Our reporting verified key races, dates, and results, but without knowing precisely who Williams and other black-British cyclists believed stopped them from progressing, there’s no way to fully reconcile correlation and causation.
To Williams, such reconciliations are not his purpose. He is clear: the purpose of his speaking out is not to publicly shame any individuals, but to prevent broader institutional discrimination from happening again. He is equally clear regarding his base allegation. I asked him directly whether he feels he was subject to institutional, systemic racism at the hands of British Cycling. “Yes, I was,” he said.
“I just don’t want it to happen to anybody else,” Williams said. “When I think about it, it just gives me goosebumps. I don’t want any boy or girl, training as hard as they can, to feel like if they win this race they’ll go to this championships or that one, and then have it not happen because of something they can’t control.”
Russell Williams in 1976. Image courtesy of Russell and Cathy Williams.
Williams grew up in a disadvantaged part of South London and found cycling at 13. “When I started, I didn’t see anyone who looked like me,” he said. “There were no black riders. I didn’t have a bike, it was elitist, and back then, when I told my mum I was riding, I might as well have told her I’d started being an equestrian.”
“It was fantastic, and I got to travel the world, but I kept all those negative thoughts about being black, I just kept them within me. I said, ‘Russell, let your legs do the talking. When you don’t win, don’t have an excuse. Just say you’re not good enough.’”
After racing for decades, Williams turned to coaching. He was tied closely with some of the biggest names in British Cycling. Bradley Wiggins called him a mentor, and he worked alongside Rod Ellingworth, now the GM of Bahrain-McLaren. He won that national Madison title with Hayles, who raced in two Olympic games, in 1997, and was winning national masters titles up to 2003. He was among the best riders in Britain ahead of the 1984 Olympics but was so sure he wouldn’t make the team that he briefly considered racing for the nation his father grew up in, Trinidad and Tobago.
The source of his athletic frustration was not clear to him in the moment, he said.
“It took conversations over time, with ex-coaches, top riders, and other black riders gave me more clues,” he said.
It was the recent Australian bushfires, which tore through his property outside Adelaide and set fire to his home (though it was saved), combined with Dr. Moncrieffe’s exhibition and research, that inspired Williams to create the short documentary and to tell his story.
Dr. Moncrieffe believes both Williams and Burton should be inducted into the British Cycling Hall of Fame. His exhibition, as well as a feature story in Issue 23 of the magazine Conquista, are part of that effort. There are signs that British Cycling is receptive, including the presence of a Black Champions exhibition at the Yorkshire worlds last fall.
Dr. Moncrieffe remains skeptical of progress from the governing body. “Any narrative has its good, bad, and ugly,” he said. British Cycling, he said, has focused on the good, meaning it is beginning to celebrate its black athletes as they deserve. But according to both Williams and Dr. Moncrieffe, it has mostly ignored the ugly.
Highlighting champions is a start, Dr. Moncrieffe said, but British Cycling still needs to reckon with the uglier parts of its past.
“They’ve showcased the good, in terms of what they want to see,” Dr. Moncrieffe said. “But along with the fact that these guys have all been British champions, why haven’t we seen them at the Olympics? Why haven’t we seen them at the world championships? If you go deeper, you see their careers have been cut off because of the decisions of selectors.
“In Britain, especially in certain parts of Britain like London and Manchester where there are a lot of black people, if these champions were celebrated a bit more by the national governing body, if they went to Olympics and came back to London as Olympic champions, maybe they would have inspired others to follow. But that opportunity to grow has not manifested.”