Full Name: Fatima Whitbread (later, Mrs Norman)
Date of Birth: 3 March 1961
Born: Stoke Newington, London.
Born of Cypriot parents, former name Vedad,
Club: Thurrock H.
Coach: Margaret Whitbread.
A Qualified Success
Fatima Whitbread is a rare breed among athletes, having broken a world record in a qualifying competition. Her triumph on the way to becoming the best woman javelin thrower in the world happened at the European Championships in Stuttgart in 1986 - and there was hardly anyone in the NeckarStadion to witness it.
But the sporting world, and the British public, knew who Whitbread was alright - and in 1987, having won the world title, she was named as the BBC Sports Personality Of The Year.
It was some career for a woman who was coached by her adoptive mother, who battled endlessly in competition with her great British rival Tessa Sanderson and then became front page news.
How It Started
Whitbread was abandoned in a flat by her blood mother; she was left to cry and it was only after she had been there for three or four days, that a neighbour alerted the police. It was March 1961, and from such beginnings, Whitbread’s life saw her living in children’s homes before, when she was 14, she was adopted by Margaret Whitbread, her javelin coach. They had met when a young Fatima had joined Thurrock Harriers and their relationship became a rock-solid package which not only brought warmth and love in the young athlete’s life, but saw her find the solitude and state of mind to become one of the event’s greatest performers.
Margaret Whitbread sensed from the start that this teenager had fantastic ability and it was not long before her words were bearing fruit; her protégé overcame the impossible from her beginning in life to find herself on the top of the podium. Margaret was a UK javelin coach and international who had a best of 45.18m in 1959 and Fatima thrived on her guidance and encouragement to deliver 52 throws over 70m during her career. Between 1978 and 1988 she was ranked UK No 1 on six occasions and second five times behind Sanderson who beat her 27 times out of the 45 they met. Whitbread's own championship success came from a foundation of the European Juniors in 1979 in Bydgoszcz when she won gold with a throw of 58.20m, a national junior record and the only time a British woman has won this event. It was not long before she was marking her mark on the senior stage too.
Rome Not Built In a Day
Whitbread had already represented Britain at the Commonwealth Games in Edmonton in 1978 and after failing to qualify for the final at the Olympics Games in Moscow in 1980, she returned in 1983 to win bronze at the Commonwealths in Brisbane. Heartbreak, of a sporting kind, was just around the corner in an extraordinary competition at the first World Championships in Helsinki in 1983, but from defeat there, she drew so much strength that it would be at this meeting where she would earn her crowning glory. But so much happened between 1983 and 1987, when the event took place in Rome.
Whitbread was heading for gold in Helsinki having led the competition from the first round when she threw 69.14m. It was a marker which the others had to follow and by the last round, no-one had managed to overtake her. Scandinavian crowds love the javelin with a passion like no other, so when Finland’s Tiina Lillak took to the runway for the final time, the noise was immense. It was greeted with delirium as she threw 70.82m to win gold and snatch victory out of Whitbread’s hands right at the last moment. Twelve months on, the pair were back at the Olympic Games in Los Angeles but this time, Whitbread’s British teammate Sanderson took gold. She threw a great distance 69.56m in round one, but unlike in Helsinki, no one could go past that early leader. In that year Whitbread had an growth removed on her womb, but she still managed to be fit enough to win bronze with 67.14m as Lilak took silver with 69m.It was a monumental, almost amazing effort by Whitbread just to be there, let alone leave with a medal.
In 1986, the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh were first and here the crowd at the Meadowbank Stadium were treated to the best duel Whitbread and Sanderson had. Sanderson won with 69.80m in the fifth round to overtake Sanderson’s 68.54m and as the winner celebrated, the silver-medallist sat on the ground in tears. But weeks later, Whitbread was on top of the world after an amazing morning at the Europeans in Stuttgart. It was 9.18am - has anyone broken a world record earlier? - when Whitbread threw 77.44m. It broke the mark held by Petra Felke, of East Germany, and the pair went head-to-head in the final. Felke led with 72m from the second round, but then Whitbread took control, moving into the lead with 72.68m, and though Felke then responded in the final round with 72.52m to confirm second place, the Briton, just for good measure, delivered a stunning 76.32m. What a night of celebration it brought, but even greater success was 12 months away. By the World Championships in Rome, Felke was back as world record holder after throwing 78.90m and Whitbread arrived in Italy with a shoulder problem.But she proved what a championship performer she was with 76.64m in the fifth round to take gold ahead of Felke with 71.76m with West Germany Beate Peters in third - as she was in Stuttgart - with 68.82m. She was awarded the MBE and won the BBC award in a year where she had also had performed her celebration act by wiggling her backside in delight when she won gold in Rome, a victory which was the front page story that morning in the Daily Mail.
In 1988 she had an operation on an abscess in her back and suffered from glandular fever in early season, but still took the Olympic silver medal. And, eventually, Felke had the better of Whitbread in a major championship when she won Olympic gold in Seoul with 74.68. She had taken her world record to 80m and this time Whitbread had to settle for silver with 70.32m. Whitbread’s career was ended by a series of injuries to her back and shoulder in 1992, but also she had won the European Cup in 1983, she was WAAA champion five times and UK champion seven times. In 1996 she married Andy Norman, the athletics promoter and agent, and gave birth to a son. They have since separated.
International Championships at javelin
1978: 6th Commonwealth Games
1979: 1st European Juniors
1980: dnq Olympics
1982: 3rd Commonwealth Games, 8th Europeans
1983: 2nd Worlds, 1st European Cup
1984: 3rd Olympics
1985: 2nd European Cup, 3rd World Cup
1986: 2nd Commonwealth Games, 1st Europeans
1987: 1st Worlds
1988: 2nd Olympics
UK Internationals: 31 (1977-88)
Won WAAA 1981-4, 1986-7; UK 1981-5, 1987-8; WAAA inters 1977
Javelin 77.44 (1986), 200m 24.38 (1984), shot 15.41 (1984)