Twenty miles east of London in the town of Thurrock, in the county of Essex, stands Black-shot Stadium, a modest athletic facility to serve this mostly modest suburban town. Happening upon this sporting spot, a visitor might imagine modest activity taking place. But if you time it right, you'll encounter a very unsuburban woman whose dedication to her sport could probably be measured on the Richter scale.
Watch as she throws the javelin. She is small-framed, only 5'5", but her muscular development is formidable, as you see when she raises her left arm and flings it straight behind her. Then her right hand hefts the 7½-foot, 1‚Äö√Ñ√∂‚àö√±‚àö¬®-pound metal spear. Her dark brown Mediterranean eyes sight back to the left arm, then shift forward again, ablaze with concentration. Now she brings the javelin up parallel to the ground, and with a jogging start, launches it with the kind of deep growl a fighter uses when working the heavy bag. It flies more than 200 feet.
This is a practice throw for Fatima Whitbread, 27, the women's world javelin champion. At the time, five of the six longest throws ever by a woman have been made by Whitbread. Only the world record of 258'10", set by East Germany's Petra Felke last year, exceeds Whitbread's best of 254'1". Felke has lost only three times in the last two years, all to Whitbread.
"I want to be the first woman to break 80 meters [262'5"]," Whitbread says boldly. "That would be the equivalent of Roger Bannister's four-minute mile. And I want the gold in Seoul to give me the grand slam—the European, World and Olympic titles."
September 11, 1988
If she attains that, it might well be because she had a childhood so deprived of love that it still fuels her extraordinary devotion to winning. She was only a few months old when her father walked out on the family, leaving her mother with no money and five children. That was in 1961 in a city housing project in Hackney, in London's East End, a traditional first stop for immigrants, which was where Fatima was born. Fatima's natural mother, a Turkish Cypriot, was unable to care for her children; Fatima suffered from undernourishment and was placed in foster care.
There followed 13 years of foster parents and orphanages that turned her, as she puts it, "into a rough, tough kid, difficult to handle. If there was trouble in the schoolyard, T was there." Whitbread switches into the voice of an earnest social worker. "My ways were not outgoing" she says with a grin. "Well, I suppose they weren't. I had nobody to turn to in time of stress. I carried the world on my shoulders."
Somehow she channeled that simmering aggression into sport. "I wanted to dominate in everything," she recalls. "And I was good. I was captain of everything—field hockey, netball." And, unlikely as it may seem, it was a game of netball, a watered-down version of basketball played by girls in England, that changed her life.
At Fatima's side as she works out in Thurrock is the very model of an English middle-class, middle-aged suburban lady. She is Margaret Whitbread, and the story of how she and Fatima came together is the stuff of a paperback novel.
Once practice is over, Margaret Whitbread tells the story herself, over, of course, a cup of tea. "I'm a P.E. teacher," she says, "and my school was playing this neighboring school, Culver-house, in the netball league in 1974. Fatima was the Culver-house captain, and I was the umpire. It was a tight game, and Fatima got very, let's say, verbal. I stopped play and told her if she continued to abuse her own teammates and my umpiring, I'd expel her from the court. She started to argue, but one of my kids told her I wasn't the kind of woman to fool with."
Margaret was and is, indeed, no softy; she had represented Great Britain in the javelin between 1957 and 1965. A few months later, the unruly 13-year-old Fatima showed up at the Thurrock Athletic Club and said she wanted to learn to throw the javelin. Margaret didn't mince her words. "I took Fatima to one side," she recalls, "and I told her, 'If I get any backchat like I had from you on the net-ball court, then you can forget it.'
"But there was none, even though it turned out we both had short fuses. She showed a lot of promise. She turned out regularly. And then, quite suddenly, she stopped coming.
"Oh well, I thought, she's lost interest. But about a month later, I got a letter. She wrote that she was still very serious about the javelin, but that the people at the home had stopped her coming to Thurrock. I'd been puzzled that her parents hadn't bought her any equipment. I hadn't realized until then that she lived at an orphanage. They'd kept her in because they'd discovered that throwing the javelin was something she enjoyed, that keeping her from it worked as a deterrent when she was badly behaved.
"In 1975 she started coming home occasionally to have a meal with us. The elder of my two boys, Gregg, who was four then [her other son, Kirk, is two years younger] kept saying he needed Fatima as a big sister. And my husband, John—he's a dock supervisor—and I knew how unhappy she was at the home. Anyway, I was driving her back there one evening and said, 'What do you think about coming to stay with us?'
"Her face split in a big smile. I don't think she could believe it, really. It all went from there."
Not easily. The adoption process, which was initially opposed by her natural mother, Hanifa Vedadt, took time. Vedadt refused to sign the adoption papers, and social workers told Fatima, bluntly and to her face, that she was "too institutionalized" to be accepted into a regular family. The supposed experts said that normal family feeling had been destroyed in her. (Discovering the fallacy in that is easy. Carelessly refer to Margaret as her "adoptive mother" and Fatima will put you right in short order. "That's my mother you're talking about," she'll say. "I have no other.")
When pressed, Fatima will admit that she knows of her natural mother, who is now 48 and still living in Hackney. Vedadt resurfaced via the columns of the Sun, a London tabloid, after her daughter broke the world record in 1986 and again after Fatima's gold medal at the World Championships last year. She has tried to contact Fatima in hopes of a reconciliation. The mere mention of her biological mother brings an icy silence from Fatima.
Under her adoptive mother's coaching, Fatima, at 16, represented Great Britain in the javelin. Two years later, in 1979 in Bydgoszcz, Poland, she beat out a strong Soviet and East German challenge to become the European junior champion. A fractured vertebra that year probably contributed to her failure to qualify for the final in the 1980 Moscow Olympics. She made her mark at the World Championships in Helsinki in'83.
"I don't think anybody booked me for a medal," Fatima says. "There was Tiina Lillak, then the world-record holder, on her home territory. She was consistently throwing over 230 feet and she was six feet tall to my five feet five inches. Finland adored her, and she was everywhere in Helsinki—in cardboard cutouts. I went out to eat one day and there was her silhouette standing right next to me. I had a subdued lunch."
All the same, Whitbread led the competition until Lillak's final throw, when the Finn threw 232'4" to keep the world title. "I felt kind of delighted with my [silver] medal but bitter at the same time," Whitbread recalls. Still, she looked like a fine prospect for the next years Olympics in Los Angeles.
Three months before the Games, a small growth was discovered in her womb. She had surgery to remove it and just five days before leaving for the Games she was still under treatment. "I went against my doctor's orders," she says. "It was agony, an electric shock every time I threw. But I came back with the bronze."
What she doesn't mention is that another British woman, Tessa Sanderson, won the gold, and their rivalry, occasionally bursting out in public, was intense and sour. Afterward she discounted Sanderson's gold in the light of the Soviet-led boycott and her own medical problems. (Because of the boycott, Felke hadn't competed in Los Angeles.) "There are only two javelin throwers," Whitbread said scathingly. "Petra [Felke] and Fatima." It was a less than charming comment, a reversion to the schoolyard Fatima.
But there might have been something to it because after the Olympics Whitbread beat Sanderson in seven straight meets. Their next big confrontation came at the 1986 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh.
Reenter fate. Just before Christmas 1985, Gregg Whitbread was struck down by a rare illness called Guillain-Barrè syndrome, which has symptoms similar to those of polio. The strain on the family was enormous. "Somebody had to be strong," Fatima says, "and I was the athlete, wasn't I?" For the four months that Gregg was hospitalized, her training schedule went by the board.
"I promised Gregg—the disease was leaving him like a slow-lifting fog—that I'd win the Commonwealth gold for him," recalls Fatima. "But I got beat by Tessa Sanderson."
Within a week, she made her best-yet throw of 237'1", in Gateshead, and less than a month later at the European Championships in Stuttgart, she broke Felke's world record of 247'4".
By last September's World Championships, Felke had regained the world record with her 258'10" in Leipzig, East Germany. Felke was ahead through the first three rounds in Rome, but Whitbread took the lead for good in the fourth.
There would be an unpleasant aftertaste. "When I got back to Britain, I was saddened that the first question I was asked by the press was, 'Do you use drugs?' " Whitbread says. She talks of the "wicked rumors and innuendos" that had followed her success, stories implying—with the help of her close friend and agent, Andy Norman—that she had used performance-enhancing substances. She angrily denies the drug rumors and points out that she was random-tested five times last year, twice at the World Championships, and passed each test.
Whitbread is not the sort to stay angry for long, though. "It was the great public reaction at home to my win that gave me the heart to put all that aside," she says. And when, last December, that same public voted her BBC Sports Personality of the Year, she accepted the award with a wink and a shimmy that was powerful enough, some joked, to keep the nation's TV repairmen working on popped tubes for weeks.
That party is over now, though, and almost as if on a schedule, Whitbread encountered another setback this summer. Just as her pre-Olympic training was getting under way, she got blood poisoning from infected teeth, and things were disrupted for three months. She sat out the British trials on Aug. 6 but was named to the Olympic team, along with Sanderson and Sharon Gibson.
Fatima, still recovering, is working hard to rebuild her strength and sharpen her technique. When asked for her Seoul forecast, Margaret Whitbread thinks carefully for a moment, then says with quiet understatement, "If Fatima can stay free from injury, I wouldn't like to be competing against her."
All of Britain hopes that mother knows best.