The forgotten story of BMX Pioneer Luli Adeyemo. BMX fever hit Britain this summer as a nation watched, enthralled by the exploits of gold medal winners Bethany Shriever and Charlotte Worthington in the Ariake UrbanGames.
Their sporting excellence enabled them to top the Olympic podium. But their successes stand on the shoulders of one extraordinaryBritish female BMX world champion, the little-known Luli Adeyemo – a teenager so talented that she dominated the BMX circuit in the 1980s before her story disappeared like too many other black riders before and since.
Adopted as a baby by white British parents, Adeyemo grew up in a white-dominant neighborhood in Newark in the Midlands. When a new BMXto her home, she decided to visit it – even though she didn’t know how to ride a bicycle.
A friend offered to sell her a BMX for £50, but Adeyemo’s mother refused to pay for it, reasoning it would soon be gathering dust, another fleeting teenage interest. So she saved the money, bought the bike, and began learning to ride it at the BMX track. “I wasn’t like a duck taking to water at first,” she tells me, “but after a few months, something just clicked in my mind, and I could ride so fast.”
Adeyemo practiced nearly every day and eventually joined her local club. She racked up decent placings at races across the country and was offered an opportunity to race at the 1986 World Championships. She didn’t know it then but was about to make history.
“I was overwhelmed and so incredibly excited,” she recalls. “It was my first international event, so I hadn’t seen anything of that magnitude. I had started competing nationally only that year, so I hadn’t qualified via the usual channels – I had been invited to compete as a wildcard.
Nobody expected me to get through the motos –. “There’s about being the underdog, absolutely zero pressure, and being grateful to be at the start gate with some of the sport’s greats.
“Back then, the Dutch were the ones to beat, quick out of the gate and strong. I started slowly getting minor positions in the motos, but I made my mark in the semis, putting me in a good position to be competitive in the final. But nobody thought I’d win. Jumping the doubles on thegave me a significant advantage that I could hold onto to keep the lead. My strengths were that I was quick out of the gate, and I could jump.”
For Adeyemo, the British BMX scene of the 1980s allowed her to socialize with the young black peers she had rarely encountered due to her adoption in a predominantly white neighborhood.
“I remember the minibusses arriving at events with music blasting out, the vibes. I wasn’t sponsored. My coach at the local BMX track was my friend’s dad, Darryl Pointing, who had zero coaching, sporting, or cycling background. I was taken under the wing of Winston Wright [another black rider]. He was great, like a big brother to me.”
When I asked Adeyemo whether she everanother black female rider on the scene during the 1980s, she replied: “Absolutely none – I was it!”
Fast forward 35 years, and we still face the stark reality of an overwhelmingly white sport. Kye Whyte, who won BMX silver in Tokyo, was Britain’s first-ever black male. When looking for representatives, there was no one.
Of course, since Adeyemo, we haveand progression of others. Supercross rider Shanaze Reade, who competed in 2008 and 2012. And Paralympic cycling legend Kadeena Cox. But across the board, black women as professional cyclists in all disciplines of the sport are scarce – from grassroots to the elite and professional level.
There are, and have always been, leading lights for black womenCycling – from Kittie Knox, the prolific competitive African American rider of the late 19th Century, to US junior rider Maize Wimbush, who was recently crowned national champion. But the norm still seems to be for black women to be outliers in an overwhelmingly white sport.
In Tokyo, for example, Mosana Debesay’s Olympic debut for Eritrea was seen as a significant milestone – the firstcyclist at these so-called “modern” Olympic Games. But it is hard for me to accept this as a ground-breaking moment.
To me, the fact that Debesay is a “first” onlyof women cyclists compared to the norm of track and field athletes we have seen emerge from East Africa over the years.
Thankfully there are emerging names for the future.Cycling is working with Imani Pereira-James – a London-born, Scottish-socialised woman of Jamaican and Tanzanian ethnic heritage – on its under-23 rider program.
Meanwhile, France is carefully developing its 2019 junior world track sprint champion Marie-Divine Kouame Taky. These days Adeyemo lives in Sydney, Australia. She left BMX after struggling to secure funding to support her progress; unlike Shriever’s Olympic story, there was no crowdfunding for athletes to fall back on then. But she has a long history to be proud of.
After winning that first played football for Queens Park Rangers., she claimed a silver medal at the worlds the following year and another silver at the European Championships in Holland. Later, Adeyemo
Adeyemo, the young and enthusiastic black British girl who learned to ride a BMX and became a world champion for the first time, is asking – her story is extraordinary. What the world needs today, and tomorrow, is more powerful young like her in competitive Cycling.