Those who complain that retired sports heroes rarely put anything back into the game should look no further than Newham, right in London’s Olympic heartland where one of Britain’s greatest champions is doing more than her bit to ensure that 2012 has a real legacy.
Tessa Sanderson was the first British black woman ever to win Olympic gold back in 1984 and her javelin triumph in Los Angeles remains our only such success in a throwing field event. We met up again recently after more years than both of us cared to remember in Newham, where the ever-ebullient Tessa is now running an academy for potential young stars of 2012 and beyond, something she has built up over the last three years off her own bat with the enthusiastic backing of a far-sighted local council but precious little from the Government, its quangos or the Lottery.
To say she has worked wonders is something of an understatement. There are now 70 'pupils' at the Newham Academy to which Tessa has enticed a dozen coaches covering most of the Olympic and Paralympic sports, with a further 60 young athletes on the waiting list for track and field alone.
You certainly would not confuse Tessa for Simon Cowell, but her remarkable Newham project has the hallmark of a veritable sporting X-Factor. Just to give a few examples of the progress that has been made in recruiting local kids into the scheme: There's a 19-year-old 110 metres hurdler, Emmanuel Okpokiri, coached by Tony Jarrett who is on course for the Commonwealth Youth Games and, according to Tessa "has the potential that could see him there in 2012 but more likely for 2016."
Then there's a 10.8 second sprinter, Rashid Kakoza, coached by Julian Golding and a remarkable trio of fencers. All from different ethnic backgrounds, they are now known as the Newham Swords and have just deposed a rather posh rival team from Kensington and Chelsea as champions in the London Youth Games. They certainly bring a whole new connotation to the word "fencing" in the East End.
Tessa has done this by breaking down barriers and knocking on doors of organisations such as the ExCel Centre, 2012 partners CLM and the Football League to extract a few bob, even ploughing money from her own speaking and motivational engagements into the communal pot.
"There is so much talent in the East End," she tells us. "I am just pleased that we have the wherewithal to unearth some of it."
But digging up those nuggets has not been easy. "We have had to go into schools to convince head teachers, tap up the local leisure centres to get free use of their facilities and talk to hospitals into getting their medicos and physios on board. No-one else has the uniqueness we have here. I know we have the right set-up from the number of kids we have knocking on the door wanting to come in, I just need more funding. If we don't catch medals in 2012, we will in 2016. All I want is people to say, 'Listen Tess, we want to help you.'"
Now Tessa hopes to extend this sporting oasis through her own Foundation, which has just received approval for charitable status. It means she will be able to spread her work outside the capital. Yet for all her efforts on behalf of the London Games and sport generally she remains on the outside of both the 2012 organisation itself and sports administration, which she admits hurts a bit.
She was involved with the original bid team led by Barbara Cassani but was not invited to be part of the party which went to Singapore, despite her connection with both the Olympics and the black community. "There are times I felt I had been overlooked and I wonder why. I've always tried my best for sport and my community."
Perhaps she has been too outspoken. It does seem odd that Sebastian Coe, who I know is among her many admirers has not sought to give her a more substantial role. Even odder that she is currently not a member of any of the sports quangos despite her obvious talent for getting things done. A few years back she was a vice-chair of Sport England the then Sports Minister, the late Tony Banks proposed making her chairman. He was howled down. I doubt I am alone in believing Tessa would have done a a great job. Indeed, you think there would be room for someone now who has been there, done it and got the Olympic t-shirt (not to mention a gold medal) alongside the academics, business tycoons and B-list celebs who seem to proliferate on these bodies.
Tessa may not have made it in sports politics. But we can let you into a secret; she has ambitions to do so in the real thing as she is thinking of standing for Parliament in the near future.
"For which party?"
She laughs. "I am open to discussion. The Government have never approached me so if the Tories want to come and talk to me, I am happy to listen."
Actually, she says, she would love to be Sports Minister. "I am absolutely sure I could do a lot better than some of them."
At a trim 53, the eternally feisty Tessa confesses she has never been happier. She is getting married – for the first time - in May of next year to the British Judo chief, Densign White. He's 48. "My toy-boy," she giggles. They are both from Wolverhampton and have known each other for since 1984 but did not start dating until three years ago. Dame Kelly Holmes and Christine Ohuruogu (whose sister Victoria is at Tessa’s academy) will be among her bridesmaids.
Over the years Tessa has been elevated from MBE via OBE to CBE but surely the time has come to rank her alongside Kelly, Tanni Grey-Thompson and Mary Peters. As they say, there’s nothing like a Dame, and Tessa is true sporting nobility.
Aritcle courtesy of Inside the Games. Alan Hubbard is a sports columnist for The Independent on Sunday, and a former sports editor of The Observer. He has covered 11 summer Olympics, is a former Olympic Journalist of the Year and has twice been voted the Sports Journalists’ Association Diarist of the Year.