To the millions watching her medal-winning javelin throws, she was the epitome of a strong, powerful woman.
But even at the height of her success, British Olympic heroine Fatima Whitbread always carried a different image of herself in her mind – that of the skinny, malnourished girl she once was, who would wake up and go to bed feeling weak and hungry.
In fact the constant hunger pangs were what the former world champion javelin thrower remembers most about the first, tumultuous 14 years of her life.
Those memories returned this week with the latest free school meals scandal, highlighted by footballer Marcus Rashford and writer Jack Monroe.
Pictures of the paltry amounts handed out for children’s lunches caused uproar and made Fatima realise that, for many, life has not improved as she had hoped.
Calling for an urgent review of free school meal provision, she says: “The meal parcels offered by providers are appalling. Utterly disgraceful and they should be embarrassed.
"This week has made me realise that things have definitely not changed as much as they should have done since I was a kid.”
Fatima was sickened when she saw the pathetic servings – including half a carrot and a bit of onion.
She says: “They deserve a decent meal at the very least. What they were given didn’t even come close. We all need to question the authorities about this and make sure this doesn’t happen again.
"We are all in this together. So much food goes to waste, especially from supermarkets, so there must be a way of dealing with this quickly and efficiently.”
She knows only too well what not having enough food feels like.
Born Fatima Vedad, she was the unwanted child of a Turkish-Cypriot mother and Greek-Cypriot father.
Abandoned as a baby in a flat in Stoke Newington, East London, neighbours heard her cries and called the police.
She says: “I was only a few months old. I was left in the flat to die, some would say. I was hospitalised for malnutrition.
“I was six months in the hospital, before they made me a ward of court and put me into a care home.”
She grew up in a string of children’s homes.
“I remember feeling hungry from the age of about five” she recalls.
“There was never enough food. In the homes, if we didn’t have a school meal, the best we had was a bread and butter sugar sandwich for tea. Most people would be horrified now, thinking of having a sugar sandwich.”
There was little emotional support.
“The way we lived was simply perfunctory. We learnt about the routine of life but it was quite tough. A hug or a kiss and a bit of time would have gone down well – but there was none of that.”
Fatima, who came third in the 2011 series of I’m A Celebrity, said there was also a stigma about having free school dinners and she was bullied for it.
She recalls: “We were discriminated against and had fingers pointed at us and had the mickey taken out of us by the other children. It was terrible.
“It was never really an option for me to stand in the free dinner queue, so I used to play Penny up the Wall to try and raise my dinner money. If it wasn’t enough, then I would go and scrounge some scrapings from the fish and chip shop.
“The lady knew who I was and she’d throw in a gherkin or pickled onion or I’d buy a carrot from the fruit and veg shop. If I was good enough, I’d also earn enough for my friend in the home.
“In summer, I used to go scrumping for apples. I used to climb trees for chestnuts. This is how I used to survive in terms of filling that hole, or I would do Bob a Job to get some money for food.”
Social workers tried to forge a relationship between Fatima and her violent birth mother which ended in more trauma. When Fatima was 12, she was raped by her biological mother’s drunken boyfriend while her mum held a knife to her throat.
Fatima finally found safety and love when she was rescued by her javelin coach, Margaret Whitbread, who spotted her talent and adopted her after meeting her at a school netball match and seeing her throw a javelin.
Sport was Fatima’s “saviour” from her brutal reality.
“Sport was my way at school of excelling and getting respect from my peers,” she says.
Fatima set a world record with 77.44m throw in 1986. She competed in three Olympics, winning a silver medal in Seoul in 1988.
She won a gold medal at the World Championships in 1987 – when she was also voted BBC Sports Personality of the Year.
Fatima married husband Andrew Norman in 1997, with whom she has son Ryan, now 22.
They divorced in 2006 and Andrew died of a heart attack a year later, leaving her a single mother to her young son, as well as carer to her severely disabled mother-in-law.
Looking back, Fatima says she will never forget the difference suddenly having three nutritious meals a day made in her life.
But those early years in the homes stay with her.
“I could count the beans on the toast” she recalls. “A bit of toast with seven beans. It was horrendous.
“If we did have breakfast, it was porridge, but there wasn’t enough to cover the back of the spoon. Sometimes we’d just get a teaspoon of blackstrap molasses as we went out of the door. It was awful. I’d hold it in the back of my throat until I got down the road and then spit it out.
“I felt constantly hungry until I got to my adoptive family and was given three meals a day – breakfast, lunch and tea.”
It’s one of the reasons Fatima, 59, looks on in awe at the work of England star Rashford.
An estimated 4.2million British
children are living in poverty, while around a million school pupils are thought to have recently signed up for free school meals for the first time.
Fatima says: “I guess I was lucky to get two pieces of toast because young kids today don’t even get that. There’s no need for it in this day and age, there’s no reason why there should be a modern day famine for our kids.”
Any argument about whose responsibility it is to feed schoolchildren needs to stop, says Fatima.
“Whatever you think about these people as parents, you have to put your feelings to one side and just think about the children and what they need. The most important thing is that children come first.”
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