Jeanette Kwakye is former international athlete turned broadcaster.
This British sprinter was five-time British champion, Olympian and world indoor silver medallist, competing in the Olympic final of the 100 meters in Beijing 2008.
Since retiring as an athlete and becoming a journalist in 2013, Jeanette's become a regular broadcaster across the BBC, Sky Sports and Channel 5. Jeanette works across many sports, having anchored world championships and athletics, swimming and taekwondo, along with Olympic and Commonwealth Games.
In 2020, Jeanette became the first Black woman to present boxing on British TV and regularly presents the BBC Women's Football Hour show, BBC Five Live Breakfast and Fighting Talk. She's also hosting an exciting new show for Sky Sports' this autumn, bringing the British Basketball League, Men's and Women's games, to our screens.
In 2017, Jeanette wrote a children's book called Femi the Fox, which teaches the younger generations about West African culture, and in 2021, she was awarded an MBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours List for her services to sports and sports broadcasting.
Jeanette is incredibly open about her life as an elite track athlete - who as a youngster was sometimes a challenge to coach.
We talk everything from the issue of drugs in sport and the revealing sports kit worn by female athletes (which Jeanette loved when competing) through to her own challenges with injuries and how it felt to miss out on London 2012, having started the year as Britain’s fastest woman.
We track Jeanette’s career path to becoming a prominent sports broadcaster in a space where there were few black women, and how it feels to now be on the other side of the microphone being the first person to talk to emotional British athletes as they finish their events at major Championships.
Thank you to Sport England who support The Game Changers Podcast with a National Lottery award.
Find out more about The Game Changers podcast here: https://www.fearlesswomen.co.uk/thegamechangers
Hosted by Sue Anstiss
Produced by Sam Walker, What Goes On Media
A Fearless Women production
Sue Anstiss 00:14
Hello and welcome to the Game Changers. I'm Sue Anstiss, and this is the podcast where you'll hear from trailblazing women in sport, exploring their stories as we consider wider questions around equality in sport and beyond. I'd like to start with a big thank you to our partners, Sport England, who support the Game Changers through the National Lottery Award. My guest today is Jeanette Kwayke, former British sprinter, five-time British champion, Olympian and world indoor silver medallist. One of Jeanette's career highlights was competing in the Olympic final of the 100 meters in Beijing 2008.
Since retiring as an athlete and becoming a journalist in 2013, Jeanette's become a regular broadcaster across the BBC, Sky Sports and Channel 5. Jeanette works across many sports, having anchored world championships and athletics, swimming and taekwondo, along with Olympic and Commonwealth Games.
In 2020, Jeanette became the first Black woman to present boxing on British TV and regularly presents the BBC Women's Football Hour show, BBC Five Live Breakfast and Fighting Talk. She's also hosting an exciting new show for Sky Sports' Autumn, bringing the British Basketball League Men's and Women's Games to our screens. In 2017, Jeanette wrote a children's book called Femi the Fox, which teaches the younger generations about West African culture, and in 2021, she was awarded an MBE in the Queen's Birthday Honours List for her services to sports and sports broadcasting.
So, Jeanette, if I can start at the beginning, you grew up in East London, so can you tell us a little bit about family life there in the 80s?
Jeanette Kwakye 01:53
Oh, thanks Sue as you know, I had such a joyful childhood. It's quite difficult to to kind of dress it up in any other way. Mum and Dad came over from Ghana in I want to say the late 70s and they were really young. So Mum was maybe 17, my dad early 20s and they had me pretty quickly after I want to say Mum maybe had me about 21 years old. And they always talk about coming over from Ghana, coming to the UK, landing in East London, and I laugh at the stories they tell me. But they had it difficult, as you would do at that time. It was not easy.
My mum is so bright if, given the opportunity, she probably would have been, you know, a doctor at the highest level. But she knew that by coming here there was a level of sacrifice that she'd have to make to be able to allow her kids to do the best that she wanted for them, as with my dad as well. So I was incredibly lucky. I'm the eldest of three and my dad often tells me the story of me being born on the day that I was born, when he checked his bank account and he only had a pound in there, and I laugh about it, and obviously we laugh now, but it just makes me think, my god, it was just a completely different reality to what I've grown up in and what I've experienced. But off the back of that, you know, I've got incredibly ambitious parents and you know they've gone on to do amazing things and that's raised me, my brother and my sister.
And one of the things that I was quite privileged to be able to experience as a young person or young woman was going to an all-girls school with a head of year and a form tutor who was incredibly passionate about athletics and her name's Sandy Sandy Forest I still speak to her now her and her husband, mike, who was also my first coach. So it was Sandy who essentially kind of got me involved in athletics. She made me go down to the track, you know, two nights a week when I was made about 13, I just had so much energy Sue, my god, like my, my energy and my brain. Everything just needed temporary, you know. They just needed to be somewhere. We could just put it all and in the end Sandy figured it was athletics. Although I was sporty, I was terrible when it came down to team sports. I just couldn't communicate. I didn't have the emotional intelligence to communicate with all the other girls around me. So track actually became the one thing I could do, because the only person to blame was myself.
Sue Anstiss 04:33
I was going to ask you, your mum and I guess, what she could have achieved and sacrificed. But your family is such a family of high achievers. Your sister graduated from Cambridge with the first class degrees at a book published by Stormzy. Your brother was a great track athlete, so you know, was there that competition in the family, or did you just know that was the path you were all on?
Jeanette Kwakye 04:49
Where I say to my brother and sister where we are incredibly, you know, lucky is in the sense that we all get on and there was never a sibling rivalry. It was never that I knew that as the eldest, I just had a responsibility to make sure that my little brother and sister are okay. There's a big gap between my sister and my brother and myself and my sister 14 years between me and my sister and that's 10 years between my brother and my sister. So mum and dad had a big gap, and I think what that then meant was that where Chelsea was incredibly privileged is that she had two older siblings who were significantly older not really to argue with her almost about, although she did argue with my brother, don't get me wrong.
But you know we are, we're really close, so it was never competitive. It was just always very much like, okay, well, Jeanette and Louis have done this and Chelsea was like, okay, cool, then I know that it can be done. It was very much, my brother and sister have done it so I can do it. My brother ended up going to Loughborough, same as myself, and that was because probably I went there and he knew it was an experience, so I guess I've just been the big sister, where I've had to dip my toe and just test the water to see if it's okay and if it's fine and then follow in. You know, I mean, I think, the vast responsibility that I hold, rather than it ever being competitive like my brother now. Although he wasn't able to really push on with that with his athletics, he is an incredible sales tech guy. He's just phenomenal director level. You know he's, he's a brilliant man and what he's been able to do is frightening. So it's just, it is a case of all of us just went for it and we were always afforded that space and luxury for my parents to be able to do that
Sue Anstiss 06:36
yeah how fabulous isn't, how lovely and it's lovely to hear that kind of you talking of them and them talking of you. They must have to have that kind of pride in the family, isn't it? I have heard you say that you were um, quite challenging to coach as an athlete, so tell us more about that challenge is nice.
Jeanette Kwakye 06:49
I'd just be different. I was a nightmare, and that was because I've got a personality whereby, like, I know what needs to be done and this, this goes throughout my life, not just athletics or sport I always know what needs to be done, whether or not I do. It is a different scenario and I'll eventually get there, but it's not. It's not without the frustrations or the tears, and maybe that's just an element of fear, where I'm like, oh, I know what I need to do, but there's a it's going to be hard work to get there right. So I just I'd constantly go back and forth with my, with my, with my main coach. His name was Michael Afalaka and I was with him for 10 years and we've got very similar personalities, so we clash heads quite a lot. So it meant a lot of arguments. It meant a lot of uh disagreements, heated debates another term that I'd use. But in the end, we were so passionate about athletics, we were so passionate about my career that, you know it just, we just had to make it work. And, you know, as I got older and my empathy started to kick in as well, I've been terrible, you know, and uh, you know it just. I think back to it now I probably could have been an Olympic champion if I'd listened, but I enjoyed it all the same, and I think that you know there's something special about coaches, isn't there? They just they have got an unbelievably, I'd say, an unwavering sense of making sure that whoever they're looking after is prioritised, and I find that fascinating. And the coaches that do that without bragging and being humble about it, are phenomenal people and they're just, they're scientists, they're wizards with what they're able to do.
Sue Anstiss 08:42
You talked about, that whole finding at Elixir Sandy, your teacher at school and so on but when did you really know you had that talent for speed on the track? Was there a moment when you saw you were so much better than others?
Jeanette Kwakye 08:55
Yeah, I think there is something when you're really young, really really young, and I think for me probably kicked in at about seven years old and like typical, like playground races, and I’d just be a bit faster than everybody else, certainly faster than all the girls, so then I'd have to race the boys, do you know what I mean? So it'd be kind of like, okay, I just had a natural speed to what I was doing. Then when I maybe got to my mid-teens I want to say 13, 14, when I really started to think about, you know, competing at club level. I was good to a degree, but I was never the best. I was never like national, you know, outstanding national champion or dominating national champion. What I would do is that on a good day I could take a win, but on an average day, you know, maybe just about make the podium. So there was a real level of competitive energy that I had where I thought actually, I know I can do better and I really want to try to, but it did take a lot of, you know, consideration in terms of how I trained, my approach and my attitude. So I want to say about 13, 14, I knew I had the talent, but how I was going to get better was the question, and that's when I needed a team of people to be able to help me do that. I was never no, like the outstanding favourite didn't need to train, turn up and win. That was never me. I had to actually work quite hard to push on and to get on the podium.
Sue Anstiss 10:22
That's good to hear, isn't it? And when did you realise there could be a career in it and kinda took that route? What age were you then?
Jeanette Kwakye 10:28
Yeah, I had a big break. I took some time off when I was about 16.
Sue Anstiss From athletics?
Jeanette Kwakye Yeah, and it's just I think you know I'd left school. I had the safety and security of this wonderful girl school in Walthamstow in East London and I left. I went to college and you're just so distracted and that was down to, obviously you know boyfriends and part-time jobs and getting money and you know A-levels and all that exciting stuff. So everything in sport world took a back seat and I revisited it in about about two years after that, when I was about 18. So I got back into when I was 18. It was a really tough conversation, actually, because I went back to see Mike, Sandy's husband you know a bit sheepish with it as well, because I'd left him, you know, for the best part of 18 months, two years.
It's like, okay, if you're going to come back, let's do this properly. And that's when, you know, I did a year there back with Mike and just got on it. I don't know what it was. It was a bit of a flip of a switch and I just thought you know what I really want to try, and I realized that there were opportunities that could come out of running and being part of the British team or the English team or any regional team at the time, and ended up going to the World Junior Championships in Jamaica in 2002. It was an incredible experience. You know, I got a bronze medal there with the relay girls and it's the first time a lot of the world would have saw Usain Bolt run as a junior and I was very lucky to be in the stadium that night when he won and broke the World Junior record. So there were a number of events that happened in Jamaica and I just thought, wow, okay, I think this is maybe what I want to do. when I came back to the UK, I was in my final year of A-Levels and I made a big decision to go to Loughborough and I knew that there was where I could really kind of hone my skills, and that is exactly what I wanted to be able to to have a base and a place that could allow me to be as academic as I wanted to be but also really nurture that side of my of my life in sport.
Sue Anstiss 14:42
I was going to ask you because you obviously that's really interesting You're kind of stepping away from sport and those teenage years and we see lots of stuff done about teenage girls dropping out of sport and a lot around sports clothing. We have more conversations about clothing and I just wondered from you as a track athlete whether you ever had any issues, challenges, whether you had discussions around the kit that you competed in, or whether you just accepted that because you were a kind of female track athlete.
Jeanette Kwakye 15:06
It's really such an interesting conversation. It's so nuanced, isn't it? So I loved my track kit. I mean, I'd wear the smallest crop top, I'd have the tiniest pants, because I just, I just okay, I wanted to look good and I was super body confident. Now, that's a personality thing. It's a huge personality thing because there were girls that I'd compete against, that have the longest shorts possible and the biggest vest to wear. Do you know what I mean? And it is completely down to how you feel as an individual. Now I can see why it can be incredibly problematic. I was at a school sports football tournament just a couple of weeks ago and it was a mixed football tournament fiver a side, year sixes and all the girls were in PE skirts and I just did. I was like what we are in 2023, you know, I left school over 20 years ago, nearly 25 years ago, and I I'm shocked that this is, this is still the norm. Like, put these girls in shorts and feel comfortable We've had so many conversations around it and let them make that decision further down the line if they then want to be able to wear things that are a little bit more standardized when it comes down to kids and sport with women.
But I personally didn't necessarily have a problem with it. But I can see massively now why you know it's problematic. And now, when you look back you can see why other girls will be handing in fake sick P notes and you know all that kind of stuff because you, just if you're confident, you don't want to wear it. You know, like I say, as as I've got older and the empathy is kind of kicked in, I'm like oh gosh, yeah, that must have been really challenging for you know, like a lame tens of girls you didn't want to do it at school. But now you really see it for what it is and maybe that's because I'm a mum or you know, I've had a bit of time and I've worked with so many young people. You can really see why it can be problematic.
Sue Anstiss 17:04
It's about choice, isn't it? As you say, there will be girls that want that and girls that's having the choice, isn't it? So, as you look back on your, I think, it's career, amazing career, what? What are the things you think of most fondly, as you kind of reflect back?
Jeanette Kwakye 17:17
The social side. You know, I think, that you make so many friends in sport and you get to visit and travel to so many places. And it's not as glamorous as it sounds. For sure, because you know if you're, you've got a race in I don't know, for example, Berlin in Germany. You're probably in the day before you race the next day and then you're on the first flight out the next day, so you don't really get to see as much, but you start to associate your fond memories of your good races with certain cities and places. So as I've got older and I'm travelling more, you know I'll return back to a Berlin. I didn't have a good time in Berlin, by the way track wise, but it's a beautiful city. So I'm like okay, cool let me go and have a look outside, or you know, I think about China when I had, you know, glorious Olympic days and it's just like wow and you think, was that even real? It just felt like a crazy experience. But you know, the pictures and the memories and just the feeling of being in those places is something that you know I miss deeply. I don't miss the training, but I miss being fit. If that's a thing I miss, being like uber fit, like you really take that for granted. When you retire you're like, oh gosh, and then you think yourself try and get back into that shape, it's impossible.
Sue Anstiss 18:34
I thought you were going to say try and get back into that bikini, those tiny tiny bottoms you had ..
Jeanette Kwakye 18:44
Oh you’re joking! I look at them now Sue and I'm like how the hell, my bum, there's no way.
Just swallow those knickers in a second. So I think back. A lot is the social side and you know I'm very lucky in what I do now that I do get to experience a level of it. But my God, that's the side that I miss for sure.
Sue Anstiss 18:59
And you obviously had an incredible athlete's career, but it did end in a tough way. Really. You're head of London 2012,. You're coming in great indoor season Britain's fastest woman at the time, so kind of what happened there from then on?
Jeanette Kwakye 19:11
Yeah, oh God, wow, you know, towards the back end of my career, so after Beijing, between Beijing and London, I just I just couldn't get to grips with my injuries. I just, I think my body had pretty much had enough. Maybe the training methods we were using just weren't, they just weren't for me. You know, I think I've looked back on it so many times and think, wow, where did it go wrong? And I think I take comfort in knowing that it wasn't because I wasn't good enough, it was because that my body didn't necessarily agree with where we were going. And I think that is the issue. You know, I, I mean, I had to make myself unavailable for selection for a home Olympic Games, and that's probably one of the hardest things I've ever had to do, because it meant that the dream that I had had since it had been announced seven years previous it was gone, and that's a really hard thing to take and when you're so close to the team and to making the team, that's that's really tough. So ultimately, in the end it was an Achilles injury that that took me out, and I remember being in absolute bits about it, you know, and I mean I lived in East London at this time I was watching the site go up.
Where the Olympic Park is now, where they're stadium is, there used to be a nightclub called Powerhouse right, I used to go to when I was younger. That's how local and familiar that area is to me. There was a Sunday market that's been wiped out by the Westfields, like I, I know the area like the back of my hand, so I actually thought you almost were like it's your birthright, you're from there, you're going to go, of course you're going to go to the Olympic and it didn't happen. So it's a lot to process. Like I said, I took comfort in knowing you're literally the fastest woman in the UK right now. It's just that your Achilles are not allowing you to do that, and that's where the frustration came. I guess it did come from that, but at the same time it was also a bit like not because you're slow, it's just because it's the timing's off. So I've always kind of looked at it from that perspective and saw it as a different platform to kind of push myself into other areas that I was interested in. That's what I did in the end.
Sue Anstiss 21:25
I mean it must have been very tough for your family as well. I think how proud your parents are and almost like on their doorstep right, you know their daughter in the hometown. So how did you all cope? Was there any support from the sport for you in terms of that?
Jeanette Kwakye 21:38
No, there wasn't actually, when I think back to it, I think at that level God, do you think back to the Olympics, like people were just chucking money at it? The sponsor I was, you know, I was heavily sponsored. I was, you know, I was put in positions I never thought I would be. My mum was doing photo shoots. My mum and dad were going to these incredible dinners they've been inviting to because they were my parents and it was really tough for them, like my poor mum and dad and I don't even know what they spoke about behind closed doors in terms of supporting me, but I really wanted them to know that I was okay and I was you know what I mean. Like for my mum and dad. They got the most incredible opening ceremony tickets for the games and they weren't going to go. And I said what are you talking about? You have to go. Like you know, they were like no, we don't want to go, it's too much, and I'm emotional thinking about it. No, it sounds like mum and dad go, because I want you to be able to, like in a few years time. I want to tell our kids about the time we went and I convinced them to go. They had the time of their life, you know. They ended up going to the GB Olympic ball together. They had the best time and I let them do it all without me and that was really important. Like, look, go and do it. We have sacrificed so much to get here. Just because we weren't able to go to the final hurdle, it doesn't make the journey any less different, you know, and I really want you to experience that and they did in the end and I just thought right, you know, I'm only 29 at the time I said there's so much more we can do, like there's like, don't worry, I know that it's not worked out, but we've got this. There'll be other things that we can. We can crack on and do.
My little sister was distraught. I remember she had a oh, it was awful. She had a proper little crying session in her assembly at school and she, when they were doing like a whole kind of good luck, Jeanette, and she knew that I was injured at the time and she started crying in her assembly, I shouldn’t laugh. And she was like now that she was like she was like this big secret that she had to keep him because nobody really knew that I was that hurt, you know, hurt enough not to go and in the end she kind of broke down in her school assembly. She was like eleven. She was a tiny little, like a dot. So yeah, it was difficult, but at the end of the day I feel like you know, these are things that they happen, do you know? It's a big part of my story, don't get me wrong, but you can't let it define you.
Sue Anstiss 24:02
Yeah absolutely, and so did you at the time think you continued to Rio? Did you have minds for another cycle? You knew? You knew then?
Jeanette Kwakye 24:10
Sue, listen, I knew pretty much straight away After London, I said there is absolutely no other motivational driver that's going to drive me like London. Did I just Glasgow Commonwealth Games? I wasn't interested. That was two years in 2014. Everybody who I'd spoken to was trying to convince me to keep going and I literally just didn't have it in my spirit. And I think that when you, when you arrive there, you know, you know my coach and I, oh my God, we went back and forth for the best part of 10 to 12 months. He made me sit down with psychologists and everything. I said I'm not doing this and he just could not believe that I was. I was calling it a day. I said I'm not doing it. I said because what will happen is you people will convince me to come back. If that decision hasn't come from me, I'm going to start resenting everybody and resenting the sport, and I think that my mental health was my absolute top priority and I thought, whilst I've still got a little bit of fire in me, let me just apply it to something else. So, yeah, I quit. By the time I was 29, I'd stopped. So what a journey. Gosh!
Sue Anstiss 25:14
You're a wise woman, aren't you? Wise woman into knowing, but that's so true isn’t it? Like kind of making that decision rather than being led to it by somebody else? I think you and I first met around 2013, 2014. We're both trustees of the Women's Sport Trust and obviously it was at that time. I think I kind of knew your career, but I didn't realise all that was going on in terms of that retiring from athletics, but how was that transition for you from sport? And you kind of moved on, but what was the step like to being where you are now?
Jeanette Kwakye 25:42
Oh, I it's interesting when you retire because you're not quite sure… you have an idea of the things you want to do. But there is this real fear. It's back to the kind of fear factor of you're moving from a space where you're the top of your game, a space that actually feels incredibly safe and objective, to a space where everyone's got an opinion and actually you're moving into a space where nobody actually even looks like you. So that for me, was the trickiest part. You know I'm coming from. I'm coming from international sprint world, where the fastest women in the world they look like me, they behave like me. You know we are we are pretty much the same into a world of media and journalism where I walk into a press conference room and if there's another woman in there I'll be, I'll be shocked, let alone a black woman. So much that played into my mind about the spaces that I wanted to enter.
But then at the time my boyfriend who's now my husband he was like you just got to go for it. Like I don't, I don't see why he's done that, that hold you back, and that's always kind of been his thing. He's like if you do that, then nobody gets anything done anyway. You've least got to give it, got to give it a shot, give it a try. So I'll tell you a quick story. I am. I started ringing around all the kind of editors and the people that I spoke to during London 2012, just to kind of a get a bit of advice, be, maybe, get a bit of, maybe a shoe in, just to see if they've offered me anything. And nobody was really that willing. I'm not going to lie. It wasn't like oh yeah, come along. It wasn't really that. I got. I got a really nice hand from a gentleman called Andy Cairns. At the time he was the editor of Sky Sports News and he got me in. And I'll never forget and I wasn't really always that interested in being on screen and I think you probably thought oh, here comes another chancer to see if they can get themselves on the screen.
And I was like, not really, I just kind of want to learn what this is about you know, I've always been quite keen on journalism and you know I always thought that was an area that I'd move into. So he put me in the newsroom and they gave me a couple of days worth of experience for a few months, put me in the newsroom and that was great for me. But it's weird because I was like 30, you know, and I'm here learning this brand new skill and you've really got to humble yourself to be able to do that. But there was one conversation that I had, a very top BBC level, BBC executive in the sports team, like top, top level, one of the people that was responsible for London, when I mentioned to him what I wanted to do, he said to me oh well, that's going to be difficult for you because you're not really a household name, so we wouldn't really be that much interested in doing anything. And I was like….wow! So I left that conversation feeling more motivated because I was like what is he talking about? Like he obviously doesn't know who I am! . So I went back and I said to my husband, my boyfriend now husband. I said this is what this guy said, and he goes. He said what he goes. All right, cool, he goes, we're just gonna have to go through the back door and I was like, okay, this is great, that's all I needed, do you know? I mean, I needed that a little bit of a kick and a push and we went on from there. So the transition the transition wasn't always easy because of the spaces have always been a little bit, well, different to what I was used to, but you just kind of you just got kind of your space and understand that you can do it if you need to
Sue Anstiss And you did go back and you've trained, and so I think you're taking that time to invest in yourself, and that must have been a big challenge too.
Jeanette Kwakye Yeah, that was funny. I did it a little part time my multimedia in my multimedia journalism course. I did that. You know I had to learn shorthand. I had that's Andy Cairns He told me he's not giving me a job unless I learned shorthand. I said I said who even uses shorthand? Nobody. But I think he just wanted to really show a level of commitment. That was fine, of course. So, did that. I made some great friends on that as well, Felicia Pennant being one of them. She's the editor of a magazine called season and it's a football culture magazine, and I'll never forget the day she told me about the idea and I thought this is interesting, a bit weird, but now it's just taken off. So it was a really cool cohort of People who were just trying to do something a bit different. And, yeah, you know, you know, with no expectations, really just wanted to be able to have something to say that I can do this and if editor or director and exec asks, I can give it. Say look, this is what I've been able to do. You know I've not done just be a pundit and sit on your sofa. I'm gonna learn how to do it properly.
Sue Anstiss 30:36
It's fabulous, isn't it? I guess one of the roles where we've really seen you excel is as a trackside reporter major athletics events for the BBC, I think I saw. I saw you not first of all, but I just remember seeing you a lot there and loved watching you doing that. So I was asking how much you enjoy it. But you can see that you enjoy it, but it looks a bit emotional sometimes. I guess the fact that you've been there as an athlete really really shines through.
Jeanette Kwakye 30:53
Yeah, that is one of my favorite jobs. A) because I love the sport, everything about it has shaped me to you know, to the person you see today. What I love about that that role is I take that responsibility so seriously because I'm aware that actually, as a British athlete, most of the time I'm the first person you're speaking to after you just competed and the questions I ask have to be a) one that you at home, Sue, would want to know, be One that makes that person in that moment feel safe and answer, but also see it's entertainment. Do you know what I mean?
Like you are, you're there as a sports person to entertain us, whether we take it seriously or not, we are in the business of entertainment and there's gonna be an answer that might be light-hearted. There's gonna be an answer that is incredibly heavy and not a lot of people are at home may be ready for that, you know. So how do we make sure we're in a position whereby the athlete that's about to speak is given an answer that is honest, that's open and interesting at the same time. So there's a lot of responsibility in the questioning and the line of questioning that I give. I've only got three minutes, if that, two and a half, so I've got to make it work for for everyone.
Sue Anstiss 32:26
Oh, you can tell that we're big athletics fans in our family, but Phil Jones had obviously done that for many years before you. So how is that coming in and taking over from someone who was so well established and you are a different face and you know a different approach and so on? So how did you find that transition?
Jeanette Kwakye 32:42
So the day I got offered the job, the first person I rang was Phil Jones. He was the first person I rang and I let him know. And A couple of weeks after we met for coffee and we sat down for three hours I'm not joking and we went through absolutely everything. That was incredibly important to me because he was the man that interviewed me in my best and worst moments trackside, you know what I mean? So what Phil had of a lot of the athletes was a really a really a really authentic connection and that was really important for somebody in particular who hadn't done that before. You've not been in that arena. The man just knew how to ask the right questions with the right level of empathy and that for me, was like right, I I can't be as empathetic as a Phil Jones, but what I can give you is a level of experience because I know what that person has been through. So maybe it's a different type of empathy I'm gonna give that athlete, because there were times like, I'll be like, what did they just do? And I'm angry. I'm like what we've been speaking about your season and you just completely mess this up. So now I'm gonna have to ask you a difficult question. You've made my job hard. So then, when I was saying that to Phil, he was like, yeah, so you've almost got to remove yourself From the situation and I’m still learning how to do that. Don't get me wrong, that is incredibly difficult.
You know, one of the most difficult ones I've ever had to do to this day is the Deana Asher Smith of the Olympic Games. God, that was… that little girl's, like my sister.
Sue Anstiss You were both in tears weren’t you?
Jeanette Kwakye: And I'm so glad nobody can see me. I was in, I was in floods of tears. As she's talking, she's crying, I'm crying, I'm like this is a disaster. I just gave her the space. I gave her the space to be able to explain. You know, I knew what she'd been going through. I she swore me to secrecy and that was really important for me, you know, to have a level of trust with the athletes, and it still is. It still very much is and that's a, that's a real nuance of journalism that you know, I think. You know always keep your source close and stuff like that, and those are things that I take quite seriously, because people are human at the end of the day, you know.
Sue Anstiss 34:56
And I mentioned in the introduction. So you athletics obviously you're doing a huge work there, but you've also working across other sports. In 2020, you became the first black female presenter to a boxing production on terrestrial TV, and you continue to host events for channel five. So what's boxing a part of your life at all growing up?
Jeanette Kwakye 35:14
Yea it was. My dad is a huge boxing fan. Oh my god and you know it's only now you get older, you kind of look back. He used to have a row of VHS's and they were all fights. You know he's the massive Mike Tyson fan. Evander Holyfield fan and I think, being the first born, it meant that I had to sit down and watch them with him. So we, me and my dad we laugh about it. Now he, he, actually thinks it's hilarious that I'm a boxing presenter because he's like I used to sit there and watch boxing. You know I can't believe I'm watching you, talking about the boxing. And you know he, he's such an old-school boxing man he asked him about anything YouTube even even know what's going on. But he's very much a man of where he will sit there and watch it and I think he genuinely believes he can fight. That's why he loves it so much.
But I, I as a boxing fan, I'm a huge boxing fan, always have been, only reason why I didn't get involved with it. You know physical capacity that I want to get here in the face like, but you know, always a massive boxing fan. So when, when boxing opportunities came around and they don't come around often, boxing opportunities, oh God, I jumped at it. I said, please, like, what do you need me to do? I'd love to be able to give it a go and give it a shot. And, yeah, it's a big part of my job, that I enjoy, incredibly and so I did that channel five and the radio boxing for BBC, which is that's an art within itself. You know it was some great social media, which is that's an art within itself. You know I've worked some great on them, on that Steve Bunce, Mike Costello, you know it's just I love it, I love it, I love it, I love it. So it's, um, yeah, it's very much an enjoyable part of my job.
Sue Anstiss 36:59
And I spoke into female boxers on the podcast actually Caroline Dubois in this, in this same series actually. I’ve not released that one yet, fabulous, but they talk about, obviously, how dominated the sport and the fan base can be too, so has that added an extra challenge for you? Have you had any pushback from you being a woman in the sport too?
Jeanette Kwakye 37:16
Yeah, it's weird. It's interesting Sue, because I think, like we've mentioned, I'm coming from a sport whereby I always felt quite safe. Men and women always pretty much treat like equally in athletics. We're on the same, we're in the same championships we’re on the same days. You know the men's hundred might come after, before the women's. Like it is an event. It almost feels like, okay, cool, we're gonna watch all the sport. No one's gonna get angry about Jessica Ennis -Hill being the face of London 2012. So, I always find it really interesting. So, coming into boxing, there's still, of course, there's a level of like the sexist kind of behaviour and the way things are. But my god, the boxing fraternity. They have taken on women in women's boxing, like you wouldn't believe, and I love that. You know, whether it be a presenter or reporter or a fighter like I love seeing the young female fighters get in the ring and they've got these, these corners. Yes, they're pretty much male dominated, but the men are just, they're so on it. They just want that woman to just to fight, to box, like. My little boy goes boxing every Monday and there are little girls there they box and I'm like. okay, this is what it's about. I just need everybody to see that, yes, there's gonna be a level, pretty much the higher you go up, where it gets a little bit tricky. But at at this point let's teach these kids and others that this is a very, very safe space where there can be level of equality getting into the ring, you know, covered the Katie Taylor, Chantel Cameron, fighting Dublin a few months ago Phenomenal. I got chills when Katie Taylor walked out in Dublin because I was like my god, they love her, she's a god and it's stuff like that where she's a woman and no one's batted an eyelid, but she's a winner, she's a champion and that's what counts in that moment. So I'd like to think actually that the wider boxing fraternity, they get it, they're on it, you know. They, they understand that this is the way forward, as it is with YouTube boxing, you know. I think it's just it's all part of the evolution of the sport and I just really hope other sports kind of take that on as well.
Sue Anstiss 39:29
I obviously see you in lots of places. You're a fabulous of industry conferences I attend, and then you're interviewing athletes in the mix zone, anchoring coverage of BBC sports events and across BBC radio. You seem to enjoy it all, but do you have a preference of the things that you love more than others?
Jeanette Kwakye 39:55
It’s the athletics for me, obviously, because it's my it's my, it's my home, is where I feel incredibly comfortable. You know, if I'm in the studio anchoring the athletics or if I'm trackside, if I'm in the studio and my producers like we've got a 10 minute film, like no problem, let's crack on, what do we talk about. And I can do that for 10 minutes and not a problem at all. And I think my favourite environments in all sports is probably live. You know, I just… there is nothing like live TV and I made this, I made this analogy to someone else the other day. They said ah, when you retire, did you think that you'd find anything? Because, as as exciting I said, this is probably the closest I feel to the gun going off when you've got your producer counting down in your ear down to one to going live. It's like a gun waiting to go off for the start of a race and then, once the what's your on-air, it's like I'm in my flow and I think that that's really important because I know that essentially it's a performance, isn't it?
You are, you are beaming into the houses of, you know, however many, however many millions or hundreds of thousands of people, and actually in sport where it is really important. It's a bit like news, they have to trust you, you know you have to trust what I'm about to tell you about that person. If I get it wrong, a people will let me know that I've got it wrong, but B almost your credibility goes down a little bit because you've made a few mistakes and unfortunately, those mistakes that you make happen to be live and it's about being as clued up as you can be and understanding that there is a level of, like I say, a level of responsibility that comes with this type of job, which is why you look at some of the greats that have been doing this for many, many years. There's a reason why they're still there because they're so very well trusted in their excellent technical broadcasting and I learn a lot from a lot of the guys that are out there at the moment.
Sue Anstiss 41:49
We've seen you do more, I've heard you do more on Radio 5 Live in the morning and the drive show, et cetera. So is that something you'd like to do more of, more of the lifestyle and moving away from sport?
Jeanette Kwakye 42:00
Nah, I’m never, I'm never leaving sport and I've made that clear to my team, to everyone. We are not leaving sport. But one thing I will say is that I think it is important to just add things to your portfolio. I did a politics degree, I studied at a high level, to A level English literature, economics, multimedia. There are things that I am very much interested in away from sport and that's important. And I feel like sometimes with sport, yes, you can bring your personality, but not all the time, and there are other areas of the media where you can bring a bit more of your personality and just feel a bit different and it's nice to do that and then kind of go back to sport and be like, ok,
Sue Anstiss I’m home.
Jeanette Kwakye Yeah, so it's just good, I think, for personal development. I think it is really important that you make sure that you are really expanding that and having a bit of breadth. Actually, it just makes everyone's life a little bit easier that you're competent in a different set of areas.
Sue Anstiss 43:00
It feels like a lot of the roles you're doing. You're breaking barriers. As the first black woman to do this, how does that affect you in the job that you do? Does it make you perform better because you're there, or do you just take it in your stride, because that's kind of what you, where you feel you are?
Jeanette Kwakye 43:14
Yeah, there is that there is taking it in my stride because actually I'm probably going to be the first black woman to do a lot of things in the media. It just hasn't happened before. So when it gets mentioned to me, I'm like, yeah, well, kind of obviously, because there hasn't been I guess in sport I should say someone at that level that's able to kind of take it there. So when you look at the non-white broadcasters, female broadcasters that are out there at the moment, it's myself, there's Alex, there's Reshmin, it's Jess Crighton it's like we are there but we're probably going to be the first to do a lot of things because there aren't that many of us.
So, yes, I take that on board and yes, there's actually a bit of responsibility with that, because I get a lot of young black women that will message me and be like, oh my God, you smashed it or you're so good on this, and they're really appreciative of me taking up that space. But then also, at the same time, you have to look good, because, whether that be to hair, makeup, outfit because people are so critical and I'm quite lucky that I enjoy that side of things I don't mind dressing up or doing the glam, because there's still those barriers in sport where you actually have to look. You have to look all right, You've got to look like a presentable, and that's not always the case for the men. Sometimes I'll be like hmm, you look a bit interesting this evening, dave, or whoever you are. I was like it's just a bit. It's always going to be a bit different, but there is a level of responsibility as a black woman to make sure that you have a standard that you want to be able to maintain, but also keeping it as authentic as you can be as well.
Sue Anstiss 44:52
And you're now a mum to two young children and we're obviously seeing more and more inspiring female athletes returning to competition as top level mothers. I think it's Shelly Ann Fraser Price, Alison Felix etc. How important do you think it is that we celebrate them competing as athletes with children?
Jeanette Kwakye 45:09
That's huge absolutely huge and I'm doing a little bit of work around that at the moment, around women and mums returning back to sport and how A how much more common it's becoming B what the science is behind that, but C is also the emotional effect of that as well. You hear a lot of these women returning with their mum's strength and it's something that they never thought that they had. And what's that about? Is there a science behind it or is it a mentality where you're coming back and your priorities are different, stakes are a little bit higher. What is that? So I say to people all the time I personally can have my kids and come back just the way that I am. But one of my best friends is Jessica Ennis Hill and to see what she did after having her son and then winning the world championships just over a year later, I said you're a freak, because I don't even see how I'm like a year after I had my son, I could just about walk up a flight stairs. So for her to be able to do what she's done is phenomenal. So we're kind of looking at what that is, what those drivers are. It just fascinates me that it's being done more and more and more.
I think the latest one that blew my mind was Wozniacki. Caroline Wozniacki coming back to tennis after having their kids. She said she retired and I thought those kids are driving her mad. She wants to get out of the house. She's going back to her sport, so she's back. Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce I mentioned her, Alison Felix. God, there are so many Naomi Osaka’s coming back to tennis and what is it? From sport to sport how different is it? What kind of support you're getting? Is it something that can be done without a level of support? Are scientists and physios and nutritionists, are they even ready? Do they know? Is there enough about it at the minute? And I think there's more and more information that's being made available. But, my God, it's a fascinating thing to watch and I think in the next five to 10 years it's going to be very normal for women to return back to sport and maybe have a career break at 25 and come back again at 27 and carry on to 35. You never know where it's going to go.
So you dipped a toe into football club ownership back in 2016 and I believe you also coached a little bit f football. So was a career in football ever on the cards for you?
Jeanette Kwakye 51:10
Yeah, there was a really interesting opportunity. I had just had my son. I started working with a gentleman and his little boy who wanted a little bit more speed training. He was 13 at the time and the man I was working with his name was Glenn. He wanted to see if he could do more of in the football space. I said I'd definitely be up for getting involved at club ownership level and stuff like that. It didn't quite work out but it really gave me an insight into how that world works and I thought, oh my goodness, this is like a drama. You watch the Wrexham of stuff and everything else and you're like this is actual drama, because 9 times out of 10 nobody knows what they're doing. And I just thought – ok, this is really interesting.
I did dip a toe into it and worked with a young under 14 boys team. Very much about their speed and their agility and a little bit of their football skill as well. I did love that. But it's commitment, isn't it? And I think at the start of this we spoke about coaches and what they’re having to bring to the table and I just don’t have the capacity to be able to do it but I do wonder, as my kids get older, if they want to maybe get involved at that level. How much of my time would I be able to give up to help with that? It's important. Those are the things you do want to pay forward, but you do need to have a level of commitment to make it work.
Sue Anstiss 52:43
I was a board director for Lewes FC for a year so I agree it's a drama and it takes a lot of time, so they’re the two things- and fabulous. And important, really important in society, in the community and all those things, but you need a lot of time to commit to that. You've been quite vocal in the past around the issues of drug cheats in athletics. I was interested to know how angry you feel about whether it's potentially tarnishes the sport and clearly it does, but the impact that it has had. Do you feel we're in a better place now than we have been in the past.
Jeanette Kwakye 53:17
When I was competing and in the years before me there were some huge scandals and I think the scandals actually shaped and defined the sport. You know, Marion Jones, Ben Johnson, Dwayne Chambers. These are names, they’re like synonymous now. You think about doping, you think about those guys in athletics, and it's a real shame actually. But what I learnt over the years is that nothing is ever clear cut. I mean, there are so many people that can be involved in what it comes down to doping and cheats and there's a level of vulnerability as well that comes with being an athlete in those kinds of spaces and it makes me so angry that people take advantage. And I think what it really hit home was when I was speaking to Goldie Sayers.
Now, Goldie was a javelin thrower and she came fourth in Beijing and I'll never forget it because she left Beijing, we're on the team together and I love Goldie. She left Beijing feeling like she wasn't good enough to be on the podium. I mean she got her medal 11 years or something later and I just thought she's missed that moment. She spent the best part of a decade thinking that she wasn't good enough to get on the podium when actually she absolutely was. People lose their jobs because they haven't hit medal counts over what they said they would do with a team. They've not hit the medal count, they've lost their job. But actually, if you retrospectively look back at the medals that we have picked up, God, you've doubled what you said we were gonna get, and it's stuff like that that makes me really angry, because it's the impact that everybody else has to kind of put up with, from financial to emotional, to physical as well. So yeah, I'm not obviously a fan of drug cheats, but the conversation is just so complex and difficult and I do feel maybe in a little bit better position than we were. I don't know if it's worth it for a lot of athletes these days to even think that they could get away with it, but my goodness, it's just the impact is so far reaching and so wide, and that's what frustrates me.
Sue Anstiss 55:30
It's interesting I hadn't ever thought about that from a medal total and how that then impacts jobs and funding and so on. I'm always thinking about from the athletes perspective, those that didn't get their medals until much later too, and I think that's really also really interesting point is about the vulnerability of athletes. When you think about the Winter Olympics and the Russian ice skating, the young female athletes, but actually yeah, they're not making those decisions are they?
Jeanette Kwakye 55:46
No, they’re not and I do a lot of work with the International Olympic Committee and the Athletes Department, and one of the things that we speak about in depth is entourage and what your entourage as an athlete looks like, how you trust them, how responsible they are for you. Especially if you're young, you know what does that actually look like. So there are lots of players involved, lots of questions to be asked and sometimes not always the right questions are asked of people and that can be unbelievably frustrating for everyone that's involved. So, yeah, I mean, we'll see. I think I'm making strides in it for sure, but there's always going to be people who they can get away with and cheat the system, unfortunately.
Sue Anstiss 56:39
And you mentioned earlier, obviously you studied politics and economics at Loughborough. Did you ever consider more of a career in politics, or politics in the governing of sport too?
Jeanette Kwakye 56:48
No, I can't. I get too frustrated Sue, because you know, I think it boils back down to when I was younger and I was saying I wasn't very good at teamwork. Right, exactly the same. I'd be the same in a boardroom If somebody, someone made a decision, so I felt really passionately strongly about I'll get kicked off, and I think that that's the reality. Like you know, I'm all going to fight my case and fight my corner, but there is the way that some of these systems are run. They're just completely institutionalized and I'd want to go in and rip it all up, and I know that there are other ways to slowly kind of get to where you want to. But I just I can't operate like that. I've got no patience for it, and I think that not only that, you’re also fighting other challenges as well. You know, going into those kind of spaces this doesn't always make sense. But the Women's Sports Trust was definitely a place that I felt like we could affect change because it was so new, there was women, it just felt nice. But in other areas, oh God, no!
Sue Anstiss 57:47
I'm laughing because I can still remember when you I think you just had your son then maybe but you being at home, like we were in a some board meeting, you were coming in remotely but you but you're being so strong in your opinions and your thoughts about things, so I do think that's why I'm laughing. It's like, oh yeah, I remember sitting around that board table and thinking, yeah, Jeanette knows what she wants to say.
Jeanette Kwakye 58:06
I think that's important, you know, but again, it's just, it is having the emotional maturity and the intelligence to kind of just read the room. And I don't know if I'm there yet. I'm 40, but I still don't know if I'm there.
Sue Anstiss 58:23
Amongst all the amazing things you've done in the last few years, you also found time to write a beautiful children's book, Femi the Fox. So can you just tell us a little bit about that and why you wrote it?
Jeanette Kwakye 58:33
Oh, do you know, it was one of my joys writing that book. I mean when my son, my oldest son he's just turned eight Kaede, when he was two and we were starting to read to him a lot more and stuff like that, god, there just wasn't anything that just felt cultured enough to me that represented where we came from and stuff. And I was just looking around and there's some lovely books. There just wasn't enough. And I love food, I love messing about and I just kind of would tell these really stupid stories to him at bath time and my husband would be like what are you even talking about? I'm like I don't know. And he goes why don't you write it down? And that's kind of how it spiralled, you know, I just kind of started writing things down. He goes this is actually really funny, like think about maybe getting it published. And I think, look, everybody has a kid and thinks they can write a book, but in the end I ended up publishing it myself, which was really nice because it just meant that I had control, an element of control over it. I found this incredible illustrator from South Africa. She was brilliant and she agreed to do the book. She was phenomenal and, yeah, we published it and it did really well and you know the kids laugh because, well, my daughter doesn't, because she's not part of it. I'm like, well, you weren't born, so you can't get upset about it. So my son teases her all the time. Well, mommy wrote a book for me and for you, and I'm like oh God, I'm going to have to write her a book.
Now it's just to find the time and to see. But you know so much, so many of the community got behind it my mum, my friends and family and dad. Everybody just loved doing it. My mom wrote the recipe in the back of the book, so it was a real kind of community effort. It's one of my proudest things I've ever done. So yeah, Femi the fox, A sequel will come eventually one day. I think.
Sue Anstiss 01:00:15
it's beautiful. Absolutely beautiful. It feels like you've achieved so much off the track since your retirement, and you mentioned it, so I can. You're just 40 years old, so I just wonder, in closing, what is next for you, Jeanette Kwakye?
Jeanette Kwakye 01:00:29
Yeah, you know, for me Sue. I love what I do, I love being on screen, I love being behind the scenes, but there's a real pull at the minute to do, to do yes, a little bit more away from sport, but also to produce a bit more. There's something in me that makes me think, oh, I would love to be able to delve into this idea or to think about how we could expand that, and it's the level of storytelling. One thing I love is to tell a story. Do you know what I mean? I think traditionally, the people of Ghana, the Ashanti tribe, we're known as big storytellers and I feel that in my spirit a lot at the time, and I just I'm keen to produce a bit more and see what that looks like, but that won't be for a very long time yet. But I do feel that that's the kind of step whereby I'd be interested in seeing how we can bring stories to life and just coming across really interesting people and think, gosh, why don't more people know about you and that's kind of my feeling a lot at the time when I meet extraordinary people. So those are the kind of things I've been looking to do, for sure, within like 10 years. But eventually I want to retire somewhere hot and warm and just really relax, because I'm tired!
Sue Anstiss 01:01:48
Well, that was such a joy to talk to Jeanette. You know she's going to go on and do more brilliant things in her life and I can't wait to see what more she goes on to achieve.
If you enjoyed the podcast, there are over 160 episodes featuring conversations with women's sport trailblazers and they're all free to listen to on podcast platforms or at fearlesswomen.co.uk. My previous gues include other Olympic track and field athletes such as Jess Ennis Hill, Katarina Johnson-Thompson, Holly Bradshaw and Denise Lewis.
The whole of my book Game On the Unstoppable Rise of Women's Sport is also free to listen to on the podcast. Every episode of series 13 is me reading a chapter of the book.
Thanks once again to Sport England for backing the Game Changers through the National Lottery and to Sam Walker at What Goes On Media, who does such a brilliant job as our executive producer. Thank you also to my colleague at Fearless Women, Kate Hannan.
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