Fatima Whitbread has gone from Olympic champion to reality TV star. But, she tells Hannah Stephenson, her unlikely new career has saved her from financial crisis
Published 22/07/2012 | 08:00
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Those who are too young to remember the Eighties will probably best know Fatima Whitbread as the muscle-bound contestant who got a cockroach stuck up her nose in I'm A Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here!
They're too young to remember the double Olympic medallist of three decades ago, winner of the BBC Sports Personality of the Year, MBE and world javelin record holder.
But Whitbread (51), dismisses the suggestion that going from world-class athlete to reality show celebrity - she came third in the jungle challenge last year behind Mark Wright and Dougie Poyntner - has been a humiliating, undignified step.
"Oh, for goodness sake!" she retorts. "For me, it was a window of opportunity that I took and it's worked."
In her autobiography, Survivor, she writes: "After five very lean years, being able to pay your son's school fees without wincing is empowering.
"I was seriously in need of work. I'd tried for the last four or five years to get work in athletics. Maybe reality TV was the answer."
There were mixed opinions of her on the show as she flexed her rippling muscles in an animal print bikini, bossed other contestants and demonstrated her competitive nature.
"The jungle was a massive discovery for all of us in extreme conditions."
She understands that her attitude may have ruffled other celebrity feathers but she's unrepentant about who she is.
"I rediscovered myself and I was pleased," she says.
Whitbread, who began throwing the javelin aged 11 and who went on to compete in three Olympics, winning bronze in the 1984 Los Angeles Games and silver in Seoul, says that sport was her saviour, the focus which increased her self-esteem and gained her respect.
She's looking forward to the London Olympics, despite the fact that she hasn't been selected for an official role in the event.
"With a British crowd behind them, some of the athletes will go far. They will walk away with far better performances than they expect, which will help the younger generation realise and focus more on what they want, whether in sport or not."
Her application to be involved in the Olympics was rejected.
"I would have loved to have been involved but there are so many of us, they can't take everybody on board," she says.
But then she's had much harder rejections in a life that has had more ups and downs than a world-class hurdler.
A childhood spent in and out of care homes, her early disappointments of her father failing to turn up for outings and the trauma of being raped aged 13 by a boyfriend of her callous birth mother, have all shaped her resilience.
She struggled to find a way out of the darkness with the help of her adoptive mother and javelin coach, Margaret Whitbread.
There are heart-rending anecdotes in her autobiography from when she was dumped and left to die as a three-month-old baby in a council flat in north London.
Her mother, a Turkish Cypriot, had had a fling with her father, a Greek Cypriot. Fatima was an accident who brought social disgrace.
During her childhood her birth mother spasmodically re-entered her life, and when she was 10, social workers tried to prepare her for a permanent reunion.
When Whitbread, who had a half brother and sister, went back to live with her biological mother, she was treated like a slave and raped by one of her mother's boyfriends.
"When I went to see a child psychiatrist following the rape, one of the things that came out was the need for me to focus on my sport - and that was exactly what I wanted to do.
"Emotionally, it was like walking through a hurricane. When I look back now, it was an emotional rollercoaster."
Does she miss competitive sport now, having retired in 1992?
"I've never been away from being competitive. That's part of my nature," she says simply.
The money you can make from sport has changed hugely since her career was at its peak.
"I think I earned £200 in the whole of my career from a grant. There's far more money available for athletes now. I did my training in a converted shed at the back of a garden. The fancy gyms they have now are great, but I never used them. If you want to be a champion, it's within you."
These days, she does a lot of motivational speaking in schools, but has also made a niche for herself on reality TV, having appeared in such shows as Total Wipeout, Come Dine With Me and Let's Dance For Sport Relief.
"Reality TV has worked for me. I'm blessed because I've had a second bite of the cherry. Most of the older generation know me from my days of being an athlete, while the younger ones know me from the cockroach incident."
Away from the spotlight, she suffered her own personal heartbreak in the years leading up to her TV breaks.
Her marriage to sports promoter Andy Norman, with whom she had a son Ryan (14) crumbled when she discovered he was having an affair with a Russian runner, even though he carried on living in the family home, named Javel Inn, in Essex, for some time.
They divorced in 2006. The following year Norman died of a heart attack, which affected her deeply, she says.
"My first reaction was shock and horror. My son was nine, and how do you share that information with one so young?"
There were further complications when it emerged that Norman had left her debts of £40,000, forcing her to sell her house when the market had slumped and move to a smaller property.
"It was important for Ryan and me to have a different look at life, a new beginning."
She's still single, although she hasn't given up on men, and has a close set of friends.
"I don't get lonely. I run with my dog every day in the park, go to the gym for an hour and do whatever work comes along."
As for the future, she would love to do Strictly Come Dancing.
"It would give me a chance to dress up, come out of my sports clothing and challenge myself."
She's not worried about snipes about her muscle-bound physique underneath all those sequins.
"Ah, come on! I'm 5ft 5in, nine stone and I am toned but I'm not the athlete I was. I've lived with the comments all my career and I'm not going to allow that to worry me."