‘I don’t know where I rate in real life. Where am I?’
Gail Emms opens up to Donald McRae about life after sport
‘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
Gail Emms at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. She retired from the sport that year which is when her troubles began