Following a recent health scare, a new campaign being led by Olympic athlete Kriss Akabusi aims to raise awareness of bowel cancer and the importance of testing and early diagnosis. 

You can read more about both his health scare and his thoughts on racism in this article written for The Times by Rick Broadbent - and please do heed Kriss’ words about colon cancer: ‘rule it out.’

‘My cancer scare might have gone differently had I waited another six months’

Kriss Akabusi talks to Rick Broadbent about the importance of early cancer testing and diagnosis, training partners and the fight against racism

Rick Broadbent

Wednesday September 16 2020, 12.00am, The Times

Kriss Akabusi has already got his epitaph sorted. “You’re not laughing now,” he quips with super-caffeinated zest, but the double Olympic medallist is in a more serious mood as he reflects on his cancer scare.

Akabusi, 61, the triple Olympic medallist and relay world champion, is still the effervescent figure of old, but thoughtful and about the big issues. He looks at British Athletics appointing Christian Malcolm as the first black head coach of the Olympic programme and says: “It’s not before time to have black people in high places.” He sees this summer’s protests and says he is “proud that people are making a stand” but worried that it may result in a form of “civil war”. Last year, though, there was only one thing on his mind.

Launching the Stay on Track campaign to raise awareness of bowel cancer and the importance of testing and early diagnosis, he said he had bled on and off for 20 years.

“I’ve suffered from haemorrhoids and joked that I couldn’t be bothered to go to the doctor this time,” he says. “But I saw an article and went. I’m not being funny but I’m a black guy and my hands were white as snow. I was anaemic and the doctor was worried. I had a colonoscopy and that was the first time anyone had been up that cavity. You can tell when doctors are concerned because they stop being chatty.

“I was sent to a specialist and she was brutal. She sat me down and said it looked like cancer. That was a sobering moment.”

He thought about his four children, aged between nine and 36, and his grandchildren. Then, after a testing three-week wait for his results, he was told he had polyps growths that could develop into cancer if left unchecked. “I got away with it,” he says. “Another six months and it might have been different.” Five-year survival rates are 91 per cent for men if detected early, but only 10 per cent at stage 4. “If you bleed, rule it out. I want to see the grandkids grow up.”

Akabusi is not involved in the athletics world now, but did enough to last a lifetime. His bronze medal in the 400m hurdles at the 1992 Olympics came with a British record that stands 28 years later. He won silver and bronze in the relays at the Olympics and still sees the other members of the team that took the 4x400m gold at the 1991 World Championships. He ran the last leg. Now he plays golf with John Regis and Derek Redmond. Roger Black keeps threatening to join them. “The bonhomie was real,” he says. “You can’t do what we did and not be thick as thieves. We trained together for seven years.”

Although Malcolm’s appointment has been well received, Akabusi thinks some priceless knowledge has been overlooked in the past. “The fact Daley Thompson is not involved is a travesty. I don’t know what it’s like now but one of the challenges was you had mediocre administrators and they would not want a big beast like Daley Thompson coming in saying, ‘This is garbage’. I’m not in that league but I’m not sure athletics back then was ready for a Daley or a Linford [Christie].”

Akabusi says that when he finished his career he had young children and so he had to go out to work. “If there was a chance of having a career in the sport I would have considered it,” he says. There is no bitterness in his words, just pragmatism. It was, as he says, a different world then.

Malcolm’s appointment is significant but Akabusi quickly adds: “Of course you have to be able to do the job, but if you were a certain colour you weren’t given the opportunities. It’s not all about race because a lot of working-class kids would not have had the chance either, but I don’t think my face would have fitted.

“Black men were seen as aggressive, uncontrollable, and so there might have been a sense of, ‘Can we control Akabusi?’ I was definitely an outsider in athletics.”

Akabusi was born in London. His parents returned to their native Nigeria when he was four and he was taken into care, living with foster parents and in two children’s homes for the next 13 years. When his mother returned in 1975 Akabusi refused to go back with her and soon joined the Army. He later said he had felt “abandoned”.

What does he think of the UK today and the protests that have highlighted deep racial inequalities? “Look, I’m an old man, I have made my way in the UK and I may have Akabusi blinkers on,” he says. “Black people think I’m whitewashed. I’m open to the fact I may be very naive, but I live in the shires and play golf at Woburn. I don’t feel particularly marginalised but I don’t see what people in Peckham might see. I’ve not been beaten up by a policeman or had my face smashed into the concrete.

“Sometimes I’m proud that people are making a stand and sometimes, maybe because I’m old, I’m worried. I would hate to see a race war. You have nice white guys and some very nasty white guys. And then there are people in very high places being very irresponsible [with their words] and that could be taken as a signal.”

Since his athletics days Akabusi has worked as a TV presenter, motivational coach and gained an MBA. His interest in his sport is now a four-yearly thing that coincides with the Olympics, but the bonds remain tight. Healthy again but aware of his vulnerability, he is laughing once more as he talks of his old relay partners: “I hope they’ll be there at my funeral — when I’m 85.”

  • Stay on Track, a new campaign led by Kriss Akabusi in partnership with Norgine and Bowel cancer UK, aims to raise awareness of bowel cancer and the importance of testing and early diagnosis.

Photo of Kriss Akabusi - Credit REX FEATURES

Akabusi was told that he had polyps growths that could develop into cancer

Photo credit:  REX FEATURES (published in The Times)