‘I don’t know where I rate in real life. Where am I?’

Gail Emms opens up to Don­ald McRae about life after sport

The Guardian - Sport - - Front Page - Don­ald McRae

‘I’ve writ­ten a com­edy about this ac­tu­ally,” Gail Emms says with a wry smile as she ex­plains how a former pro­fes­sional feels when she is spat out by the sports in­dus­try and a proud ca­reer fades away into obliv­ion. “It’s very Bri­tish be­cause they’ll say: ‘Well done, here’s a pat on the back. Now fuck off and get a proper job.’ They need to con­cen­trate on the next one. You’ve done your job, so off you go.”

Emms is chatty and cheer­ful in a sports club in Mil­ton Keynes; but the themes of this in­ter­view of­ten seem as bleak as they are salu­tary. The bru­tal way in which UK Sport cuts fund­ing is matched by the prob­lems Emms has faced as a re­tired Olympic medal-win­ner. She won her sil­ver medal in bad­minton at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, play­ing in the mixed dou­bles with Nathan Robert­son, at a time when Bri­tish sport­ing suc­cess was a rar­ity. Emms and Robert­son were also world cham­pi­ons in 2006 and she won two Com­mon­wealth Games gold medals and a match­ing pair of Euro­pean ti­tles. Eleven years later she pauses when asked if she now wishes she had never been a pro­fes­sional sportswoman. “Yeah, I ques­tioned that a lot,” Emms says. “This year es­pe­cially.’”

She played pro­fes­sion­ally for a decade and, as she says, “I then had a fam­ily. So I’m 40 now and feel like I’ve had the ca­reer of a 23-year-old. My CV lit­er­ally reads: ‘Can hit a shut­tle re­ally hard.’ But who am I? I’ve got medals to show and I’m re­ally am­bi­tious and de­ter­mined. But that doesn’t get me through the HR sys­tem when they ask: ‘Has she got three years’ ex­pe­ri­ence? Has she got a mar­ket­ing de­gree?’ No, I haven’t.”

Emms ob­tained a sports science de­gree in 1998 and, rather than ex­pect­ing free hand­outs as a former Olympian, she would just like a chance to prove her in­tel­li­gence and vi­tal­ity could be use­ful in the job mar­ket. In a blog en­ti­tled ‘I’m ashamed to ad­mit I’m strug­gling,’ Emms wrote of how the con­stant re­jec­tions and piles of un­paid bills made her feel like “I am a fail­ure … I am feel­ing lost and with no di­rec­tion, no pur­pose, no ca­reer, no iden­tity and who the hell do I go to? I am not sure I can cope with more re­jec­tions.”

Emms sips her green tea and de­scribes her con­tra­dic­tory emo­tions. “In my head I’m great, I’m awe­some,” she says wist­fully. “It’s that ego we have in sport. But, in real life, you keep get­ting re­jected and you think: ‘I knew where I stood in the bad­minton world rank­ings but I don’t know where I rate in real life. Am I av­er­age? Am I bet­ter than that? Where am I?’”

Her vul­ner­a­bil­ity is a re­minder of the bat­tle many sports­men and women face on re­tire­ment. She also makes an acute ob­ser­va­tion about elite sport un­der­min­ing per­sonal growth. “Sport sup­presses you and keeps you like a kid. It’s eas­ier to con­trol kids be­cause if they mis­be­have you can put them on the naughty step. So coaches turn into par­ents. And sport makes ath­letes be­have like kids. I’m still a big kid.”

Emms rolls her eyes in self-dep­re­ca­tion. But her hurt is ob­vi­ous. “I spent seven months try­ing to present my­self to com­pa­nies say­ing, ‘Look, I can re­ally help even if I haven’t got ex­pe­ri­ence in an of­fice. I’d love to be part of your com­pany.’ All I got was: ‘No, sorry. No, sorry.’ I nearly cried on some­one when try­ing my in­ter­view-sell­ing tech­nique. I was think­ing, ‘Don’t cry, but I’m re­ally des­per­ate and I re­ally need a job.’ I got home and thought: ‘No one has a sod­ding clue.’ So I wrote this blog so quick [Emms makes rapid typ­ing sounds] and hit ‘Send’.

“I had over 1,000 mes­sages – 200 from ath­letes. So many peo­ple were telling me: ‘I was also in a re­ally bad place but I got through it.’ But the fact that 200 ath­letes from all sports got in touch was scary be­cause they all felt the same as I did. I’ve opened this box so I can’t just say: ‘Yeah, see you ev­ery­one.’ I feel a re­spon­si­bil­ity to do some­thing about it.”

Be­fore out­lin­ing some of her hopes to help oth­ers pre­pare for their tran­si­tion into or­di­nary so­ci­ety, Emms voices con­cern about con­tem­po­rary sport. “I’m wor­ried about this pres­sure cooker of sport. It’s scary that peo­ple are re­tir­ing at 25. That trou­bles me. Why do they need to re­tire at 25? They should be in their prime. Look at [the former world cham­pion sprint cy­clist] Becky James. She re­tired at 25. She was los­ing her­self in cy­cling so fair play to her for hav­ing the guts to get out. But we’ve lost some­body re­ally tal­ented.”

Bri­tish Cy­cling has come un­der se­vere crit­i­cism, amid al­le­ga­tions of sex­ism and bul­ly­ing by former coaches. James her­self has not com­plained but the con­sum­ing na­ture of pro­fes­sional sport worked against her nat­u­ral ebul­lience and wider in­ter­ests. “There’s so much pres­sure on ath­letes, coaches and per­for­mance directors,” Emms says. “Their jobs are on the line. If they don’t pro­duce a gold medal they could be gone. And it’s not healthy. I should look back and think I loved ev­ery mo­ment of my sport­ing ca­reer. I don’t think I can. How many peo­ple in the sys­tem can say: ‘I truly love it.’ They can’t be­cause of that pres­sure.

“I’m for and against the

UK Sport sys­tem. The ruth­less­ness pro­duces medals. If you in­vest so much money you ex­pect a re­turn from it. I get that. How­ever, a lot of sports rely on it. Bad­minton, as a mi­nor­ity sport, is very re­liant on that money. I man­aged to achieve what I did be­cause of fund­ing and in­vest­ment. But we shouldn’t be re­liant on UK Sport money. We should be sus­tain­able as we build from the grass­roots. My worry is that we’ve cre­ated this mas­sive gap be­tween grass­roots and the elite with the

UK Sport sys­tem.”

Emms was shocked late last year when bad­minton’s fund­ing was slashed from £5.9m to noth­ing. “I thought it was a joke at first be­cause I was on the [na­tional bad­minton] board and we had no warn­ing to say: ‘Lis­ten, it’s not look­ing good, just be pre­pared.’ In­stead [UK Sport] were like, ‘it will be fine’. To go from £5.9m to zero after we had won an un­ex­pected medal at the Rio Olympics seemed to­tally wrong.

“I think there should be a base level for all sports but also an in­cen­tive as well – ‘We’ll give you a quar­ter of a mil­lion to start a club sys­tem but you need to help your sport be sus­tain­able.’ Once we’ve done that there might be in­vest­ment into ex­tra fund­ing. Bad­minton has be­come a lit­tle [she makes a beg­ging ges­ture]: ‘Please can we have some money?’ I now think: ‘Ac­tu­ally, we can do it our­selves. We’ve got thou­sands of clubs across the coun­try. We have to pull to­gether. They do it in Den­mark very well.’

“But be­fore reach­ing that point there was anger. You feel: ‘What’s the point? Why don’t they be­lieve in us?’ But now I think bad­minton needs to show how good we are. We have a lovely lit­tle sport but this is the hard­est time be­cause peo­ple were so used to lot­tery fund­ing. They’ve got to change that mind­set. I’ve been there be­cause I was also pre-lot­tery. I started when there was no fund­ing. You had to hire the courts your­self, pay for your coaches, buy the shut­tle­cocks. We’ve al­most gone back to that. But it can be done.”

What does she think of UK Sport’s strat­egy of pri­ori­tis­ing medals above all else? “Do most peo­ple care that we’re sec­ond in the medal ta­ble? This medal ta­ble ob­ses­sion is un­healthy. Do we need to take a step back and get en­joy­ment into sport again? Let’s cel­e­brate sport, in­vest in grass­roots and path­ways to elite sport. It’s all down to the pres­sure bub­ble. If we can re­lax that, al­low peo­ple to be them­selves as well as ath­letes, we’d solve many prob­lems around Bri­tish sport.”

Emms wrote an open letter to Kather­ine Grainger, the former Olympic rower and the new chair of UK Sport. She and Grainger have been friendly since they both won medals at the Athens Olympics in 2004. Emms urged Grainger to ditch UK Sport’s “Si­mon Cow­ell ap­proach to sports fund­ing”, where only the most pre­dictable op­tions are re­warded. Grainger re­sponded pos­i­tively and she and Emms “have chat­ted a lot”.

“I love Kather­ine and I al­ways learnt from her. Kather­ine is new to the job and has to make de­ci­sions after as­sess­ing all the in­for­ma­tion. I would hate to be in her po­si­tion be­cause I can see both sides. But I’ve been hurt by how my own sport has been so badly af­fected.”

Emms is striv­ing to cope with her own strug­gles. “I’m not liv­ing in my car but I am bat­tling fi­nan­cially. There are many peo­ple in lot worse sit­u­a­tions than me be­cause the real world is harsh. It’s also slow. Sport is quick. If you’ve got some­thing wrong it gets fixed. In the real world I was hav­ing meet­ings after meet­ings. It ground me down.”

In the real world, women in sport are con­stantly un­der­mined. Emms tells a story about her mum play­ing in the women’s foot­ball World Cup in Mex­ico in 1971. “My mum was 19 and she ran to her bank where she was work­ing, with her letter say­ing that she’d been se­lected. They said: ‘You go and you’re fired.’ So she went and had to pay for ev­ery­thing. Against Ar­gentina there was a crowd of 50,000 and my mum – the Blonde Bomb­shell – scored this amaz­ing goal. She went around two de­fend­ers and hit it in the top cor­ner. Back home no one cared. Ev­ery time she tried to prac­tise she got abuse. Things are bet­ter for women now but sport is a man’s world. It will never be equal. But I don’t want women be­ing com­pared to men in sport. Cel­e­brate women’s sport for what it is. I’ve no­ticed a change in see­ing the re­spect there was for women’s cricket at Lord’s. The World Cup fi­nal was a sell-out. But of course there will al­ways be sex­ism and sex­u­al­i­sa­tion in sport. So we need more girls play­ing sport.”

Emms is com­mit­ted to help­ing sports pro­fes­sion­als make a smooth tran­si­tion back into main­stream so­ci­ety – so is she closer now to the sat­is­fac­tion of a clearer work path? “Yes and no. I’ve re­alised no or­gan­i­sa­tion is go­ing to em­ploy me be­cause it’s a big risk. But I’m work­ing on some­thing which can ben­e­fit ath­letes so that when their ca­reers are over they say: ‘That was a great part of my life but it doesn’t de­fine me for ever. I know who I am out­side of sport and I feel good.’ I think I’ve got a way of help­ing them do that. The main thing is I don’t want peo­ple to be in my sit­u­a­tion. I lost my iden­tity in bad­minton. I lost me. But slowly I’ve found who I am. I’m be­gin­ning to find a new way for­ward.”

Life re­mains test­ing and, a few days later, Gail Emms loses her fa­ther, Tony. Her mes­sage on In­sta­gram was a mov­ing trib­ute to “the most stub­born man I knew, mad Nor­wich City fan, in­cred­i­ble cook, my chief sup­porter and taxi driver to bad­minton tour­na­ments, tal­ented car­pen­ter and builder, who in­tro­duced me to the won­der­ful mu­sic of Johnny Cash. My heart is break­ing. RIP Dad. xxxxx.”

The spirit of Tony Emms’s daugh­ter, how­ever, lives on fol­low­ing his death on Monday. She sends me a thank you, a tear-streaked emoji and con­fir­ma­tion that she and her fam­ily are strong amid the sad­ness. Her new ven­ture will con­tinue and, as she said at the end of our in­ter­view, “It’s early days but watch this space.”

This medal ta­ble ob­ses­sion is un­healthy. We need to step back and en­joy sport again

Por­trait by Tom Jenk­ins for the Guardian

Gail Emms at the 2008 Olympics in Bei­jing. She re­tired from the sport that year which is when her trou­bles be­gan

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