The athlete at the centre of the racism row in bobsleigh has broken his silence for the first time. Toby Olubi confirmed that on his first day with British Bobsleigh in 2013, Lee Johnston — the newly appointed head coach of the body — said that “black drivers do not make good bobsleigh drivers” and “I knew you would be late because you are black”.
While Londoner Olubi insists that Johnston is “the right man for the job”, he maintains that the sport is “still in the dark ages”.
Johnston was investigated by his superiors at the time of the incident and officials have said he will remain in his position for next year’s Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang.
Recalling the incident, Olubi says: “It was my first day [with the squad]. The worst thing was him saying about black drivers not being able to drive. He’s not a racist and I don’t think he has a racist bone in his body but what he did was repeat a stigma in the sport.
“Bobsleigh is still slightly in the dark ages. Lee repeated a stigma — he’s not the source of it — he got pulled up on it and expressed his remorse straight away. He understood that the comment was ignorant.
“We discussed it man to man immediately. I explained the problems that arise when you repeat certain remarks — something repeated in countries that are less ethnically diverse — it almost becomes like rhetoric. It’s ridiculous that someone’s skill can be determined by their race or colour of their skin.”
In response to the incident, the British Bobsleigh and Skeleton Association said: “A complaint was made against a member of staff in 2014 relating to an incident that was alleged to have taken place in 2013 and this matter was formally investigated and dealt with appropriately at the time.”
In recent months, British Bobsleigh has undergone wholesale changes, with Gary Anderson stepping down as performance director in August through ill health and head coach Dominik Scherrer resigning last month. Johnston was logistics manager and performance coach at the time of the incident with Olubi but last month was promoted to replace Scherrer. “I was asked about him [Lee] being fit for the role a month ago by our chairman and recommended him fully,” adds Olubi. “All allegations of bullying and a toxic atmosphere were with the old management.”
Olubi’s observations were shared — with his knowledge — by another black athlete, Henry Nwume, with then British Bobsleigh chairman, Sir Andrew Ridgway, in 2014. While Olubi admits British Bobsleigh had its issues, he says things have changed markedly in the years since the incident.
“I want to stress that this happened four years ago,” he says. “British Bobsleigh is not in the place it was four years ago. In fact, it’s the best position it’s ever been in. Team morale is very high and the problems of the past have been solved. Regardless of what happened, Lee is the best guy for the job. We’re 100 per cent behind him — and that includes me. I’m not holding him to account for something that happened four years ago. The irony is, for a first day like that, he’s been at the helm of every single one of my successes. But it doesn’t change the story of what happened. I wouldn’t say the issues are present but there are still lingering issues in the sport.”
With just four months to go until the Winter Games, Olubi hit back at suggestions he was backing Johnston publicly merely to secure his place on the team.
“Neither Lee, nor the British Bobsleigh and Skeleton Association, know I’m telling my side of the story, nor have they pressured me to skewing my story with a threat of my place in the team,” he adds.
“I take moral value over anything else and would rather miss out on the Games than sell my soul for a lie. I’ve already publicly come out against Lee on this matter before and, if the situation was contrary to what I’m saying, I wouldn’t be afraid to do so again.”
The 30-year-old south Londoner came into the sport from a sprinting background. After being approached to try out bobsleigh, the economics graduate left his job as a secondary school support teacher and had immediate results. Olubi believes the wider sport needs greater education in terms of racial prejudice for the future.
“Stuff gets repeated year after year,” he says. “I’ve heard it from other sources and it’s something we need to stamp out. It’s wrong, plus it doesn’t make any iota of sense.
“This isn’t a British problem. I’ve heard these things around the circuit. I don’t want to bash my sport, it’s just the truth of my sport.”
As for the racism he has faced in bobsleigh, Olubi insists it had never acted as a deterrent. “I get a kick from proving people wrong, so it didn’t deter me,” he said.
As for the Johnston story emerging four years on from it happening, Olubi says: “The story has made us even tighter. We know the truth. We’re ready to go out there every day, risking our lives on the ice for Lee, our families and the nation.”