Jonathan Rea was 'bullied at school for rejecting sectarianism'
Northern Ireland road racing star Jonathan Rea has revealed that he was bullied at school because he didn't understand sectarianism.
The 30-year-old Co Antrim man was so naive growing up that he thought red, white and blue kerbstones represented a race track.
Rea, a three-time World Superbike champion who will find out on Sunday if he is this year's BBC Sports Personality of the Year (SPOTY), admitted he had a somewhat sheltered upbringing.
"I've got good faith but I don't distinguish between Protestants and Catholics," Rea told The Guardian.
"I don't follow religion-based football teams.
"I grew up in the country so I was sheltered. I got really bullied at school because I didn't understanding why the kerbs were painted red, white and blue.
"I thought it was a race track. People said, 'No, it's because it's a Protestant area'."
Rea, who was born a Protestant and lives on the Isle of Man with his Australian wife Tatia (37), conceded that it "seems funny now", but the bullying he was subjected to was horrible at the time, and he was constantly threatened with violence.
"I never took part in school sport or played rugby on a Saturday because I went to motocross," he recalled.
"I remember being threatened all the time that I'd get beaten up. The worst was that I would get stabbed on the way to the bus."
Rea, who has two sons - Jake (4) and Tyler (2) - saw one of the bullies a few years ago.
"The baddest kid said hello to me in my local petrol station," he said.
"He was stacking shelves there and I was racing in the world championship.
"I thought, 'You've ended up here'.
"I guess he's not the same person he was back then."
Rea said he was delighted to have made the SPOTY shortlist - the first motorcyclist to do so in a decade - and added that sport is an important tool for bringing communities together in Northern Ireland.
"Whether it's Rory McIlroy in golf, Carl Frampton in boxing, the Northern Ireland football team, Ulster Rugby or myself on the bikes, it brings the whole place together. This country is incredible," he said.
"Sport gives the entire community something to support instead of focusing on religion or other problems."
As a man who competes with a crash helmet on, Rea is not one of our most recognisable sport stars, despite his unprecedented success.
Indeed, he admitted that he is probably better known in Bologna than Belfast.
"Superbikes in the UK is not really popular, it's not a mainstream sport," he said.
"In Italy, it's on terrestrial TV all the time and the big sport papers have pages of coverage.
"So landing in a place like Bologna airport is quite something.
"It's not like the paparazzi mobbing Formula One world champion Lewis Hamilton, but you are recognised and asked for your autograph."
Rea said he enjoys competing with fellow Northern Ireland superbike racer Eugene Laverty.
The pair are good friends, and started off together as raw, 14-year-old would-be bikers.
They both won places in an X Factor-style competition for new riders, and Rea admitted that neither was quite ready for the wider world.
"Me and Eugene were dumb and dumber back then," he said.
"We had a great time, though."
Rea also recalled how his career almost ended before it began after he broke his femur during an accident as a 17-year-old in 2004.
"I broke it so badly the doctors told me I would never race again.
"I went into turn one on a Scottish track and my brakes completely failed while I was racing at 160mph. I didn't get knocked out but I wish I could have been because I was in a world of pain.
"The doctor at the track said I had broken my femur. I was thinking: 'How does he know?' He later told me he could see that the femur was actually outside my leathers."