Athlete turned journalist, Jeanette Kwakye, is the face of boxing on Channel Five – the first black woman to present boxing on terrestrial TV, but she isn’t shouting about it from the rooftops.
This isn’t because she isn’t proud of her achievements, but the 2008 Olympic finalist wants to be recognised by her merits, not by what she looks like.
As well as spending her time researching upcoming fights which she’ll be presenting, Kwakye also hosts a radio show on BBC Radio London which celebrates and champions sports women.
Kwakye explained how she got involved in both athletics and then journalism, revealed what her proudest moments of her life are so far and spoke about why she’s a purist when it comes to the sport of boxing.
Why did you get involved in athletics – was it always what you wanted to do?
When I was younger, I was always a really sporty little girl, so I tried all different sports. I loved everything: football, athletics, volleyball, netball – whatever my teacher would give me I’d do. I also just liked the playground games like bench ball, dodgeball, anything we could get competitive with that was me. But I seemed to have the talent for running fast. I couldn’t run very far, there’s a big difference, but I could run fast.
So, off the back of that I just had incredible teachers right from primary through to secondary who would help me get to the places that I needed to, and it was one of those things that as you get better, more opportunities start to come your way, so I took them.
What did it feel like to be in the 2008 Olympic games and represent your country in such a massive tournament?
It was amazing – one of the best memories of my life. Obviously, I think for anyone to get to Olympic Games and to be that person who says it from such a young age and for it to actually happen is crazy. To be on that start line and to represent Team GB and represent my family and what it meant for everybody who had worked hard to help me get there was a really incredible moment, one I’ll never, ever forget.
When I tell my kids, they don’t care about it now, they’re too little but when they get older, I’m going to bore them with all the stories.
Why did you decide to go into journalism after your athletics career?
At school I loved English and I loved being able to tell stories. I always thought of journalism as one of those careers where you get to tell a story and you get to tell important stories, silly stories, love stories. But I just love the fact of being able to tell tales and that for me was something I felt naturally I was quite good at, whether that was speaking or writing. To know that could be a natural progression into journalism and presenting once I’d finished athletics for me was a bit of a no-brainer. I’ve always had it in the back of my mind that it was something that I’d probably move into once I’d finished and I’ve loved it ever since, no regrets at all.
Does it feel significant to you that you’re the first black woman to present boxing on UK TV or does it feel like just another part of your career?
I think the latter, I was told that was the case in one of my first interviews when I signed up to Channel Five and to do the boxing and bring it free to air was so important to me and I didn’t really think about what I looked like doing it.
I think it’s so important that a sport like boxing is put out there for young people to be able to see, for it to be accessible to people and that was key. My colour, my gender and my race doesn’t really necessarily come into it, but you know what looking at someone who looks like me then I guess any little girl who’s looking at me thinking wow maybe one day I might be able to do that, then I’m all for it.
It’s a positive move but not something that I shout about that much because I’m just genuinely keen on doing a good job on the day and making sure that the boxers that are in the ring are getting the best representation of themselves on air.
You host The Women’s Sports Show on BBC Radio London, so how important to you is it that women champion other women, both in the sport world and in general?
It’s huge, absolutely massive because women have spent so long shying away from being able to tell their truth with any type of story, whether it be sport or whatever industry they’re in. And we’re now seeing the effects of that as more and more women come and start to do more in male-dominated spaces. But if you’re able to really give women a platform and say hey you know what we’re here, we’re not going anywhere and tell the stories then straight away people are like okay let’s listen, let’s sit down and talk about how we can all be part of this bigger movement. And I have a little piece in that with my show on a Saturday, but I’m delighted that I’m able to tell some really good stories and bring things that maybe wouldn’t have been told previously.
Have you ever thought that being a woman has ever been a barrier for you, both when you were competing and now in the world of journalism?
We’re in a position now as women where we’re really good at what we do. But sometimes there are some people that see you’re a woman before you’re a journalist, see you’re a woman before you’re an athlete. As we change society to it just being based on merit completely, I look forward to that day and I do believe it’s coming, I’m an optimist with that. But we have to still keep on working to make sure that as women we know that we’re good enough for the job and we’re not just put there to tick a box, especially for me as a black woman.
Some people may accuse me of being a black woman and that’s why I got into a position but actually I like to think that I’m quite good at what I do and that I’m able to prove that and show that. And very quickly people can see that that person is there based on merit and not just there to tick boxes. I feel like if you believe in yourself and you know how good you are at what you do, those kinds of comments should not faze you.
It’s not nice, we’re only human, when we hear those kinds of things, we do get a little bit rattled but at the same time it’s like you know what actually I’ve worked bloody hard to get to this point. I take comfort sometimes looking at men who are absolutely horrendous at their job and I think to myself, well yeah, I’m definitely here because I need to be.
As the face of Channel Five boxing, how hard do you think it is for black women and women in general in Britain to get into boxing?
It’s interesting because some of the best boxers in the UK both in history and at present are black. They’ve got black mums, they’ve got black sisters, black aunties, black cousins that are women so I’m sure that they have family members that are super invested in what they do but maybe they thought about getting into the industry but looked at it and thought this is not for me.
I just want to be a woman who gives women that space, it’s for all of us and we love it, we love being able to watch it and the more and more now we see female boxers coming through and they’re smashing it. That now gives a massive pathway for a young girl who thinks they want to get in the ring and look and see it can be done really, really well. It’s exciting to see how the women’s game continues to progress over the next few years for sure.
You presented Idris Virgo’s fight a few weeks ago, so how much research do you have to do before presenting a fight like that?
A fair amount, Idris Virgo is a really interesting character because of his Love Island connection. I find it fascinating because as a reality TV person you can then move away from that and step into whatever you want because you’ve got the profile. So, there’s a really interesting backstory with Idris but at the same time he’s a boxer and that’s how I’ve got to look at him. I’ve got to look and see how he fights; I’ve got to see how he’s trained; I’ve got to look at what his competition is like and what his chances are. There is a lot that goes into that but it’s my job, it’s what I love doing and that’s what the viewers like to listen to and hear.
Do you think reality stars and YouTubers getting involved in boxing is good for the game or is it becoming overcrowded?
I love sport, I’m a purist when it comes down to sport. There is an art of boxing which I think it quite sacred and to be able to train and do it and do it well and do it properly is critical to be able to keep people safe in the first instance. So, if you are somebody who fancies their chances, whether it be white collar boxing or YouTube, you should respect boxing and I think that’s really, really important. And respect the people that brought it up because it takes a long, long time for sport to get to a respected level and you don’t want to cheapen it by coming in and just thinking there’s only certain elements of the sport you want to take on board or respect, you need to come in and respect all of it.
I laugh when I see the YouTubers, I don’t think you’ll see me flying out to Vegas to cover a Jake Paul fight, it’s not necessarily my bag, I feel there may be other presenters that might do it a bit more justice than I would but that’s the purist in me. You know what, let them have their fun, how long it will last – I have absolutely no idea, but I know since the beginning of time the actual sport of boxing has been around and that’s what I’m here for and what I want to tell the stories of.
Some people love it, but some of the people who are really respected in the sport are thinking okay when is this wave going to be over? You embrace it, you can see what it’s doing, it’s bringing new eyes to the sport but call it boxing? I don’t know.
Do you ever get nervous before you go live on air, or have you gotten used to that over time?
Oh no, you always get a bit of nerves, the rumble in the tummy just before and you’ve got a producer counting down in your ear and it’s always live TV so you know it’s important, you know the eyes are on, you don’t want to mess anything up because you want to do the programme justice and nine times out of 10 if you see a presenter make a mistake, it might not even be their fault.
So, regardless of that I can’t come and tell the public, oh it wasn’t my fault, it is my fault because I am the person that has the words leave my mouth whether or not the producer or someone has told me something different, I have to be ready to make sure that whatever broadcast I’m putting out there is a decent one. So, yeah, I get nervous, not as nervous as I was as an athlete – it’s a different kind of nerves I think.
What are you most proud of in your life so far?
I’ll have to break it down! I would say definitely from my past in my athletes career it would be the Olympic final simply because to be able to get to that position was a massive deal for me.
Presently I would say my children, a massive, massive achievement of mine to be able to bring two babies into the world and still be a woman who’s able to work and work well. But I look forward to my future, I believe some of my best moments are yet to come. That’s what excites me the most, the optimist in me looks forward to getting up every day and seeing what opportunities come about. It’s always good to know you’re in a position where things are on the up.
Words by Lucy Roberts on Female First. You can follow Lucy on Twitter @Lucy_Roberts_72.