Pauline Davis-Thompson is a racing pioneer with three Olympic medals at five Olympic Games under her belt and the prestigious title of being the first Black woman on the management board of the World Athletics council. She was a central figure in the Russian anti-doping campaign, which makes her reflections very timely right now, and she’s recently written the terrific book, Running Sideways: The Olympic Champion Who Made Track & Field History. Ben Kaplan spoke to Pauline and left the conversation inspired.
Ben Kaplan: Where are we reaching you this morning, Pauline?
Pauline Davis-Thompson: The beautiful island of the Bahamas. Sending you some heat, I can’t even imagine what it’s currently like in Canada.
BK: Cold, indeed. Let’s get right into it. Obviously with Russia in the news and your experience with taking on Russia in your anti-doping work, what can you tell us about your thoughts on the war in the Ukraine?
PDT: I’ve visited Ukraine and it’s a beautiful place with warm, friendly people and obviously this is a terrible situation. I feel terrible for the Ukrainian people and the Ukrainian athletes.
BK: I think this war is hitting people really hard.
PDT: These past few days I’ve just felt really upset because I love democracy and my time in the Ukraine was really impactful. I’ve been on my knees, praying and praying and praying and asking God to cover the Ukrainian people.
BK: Let’s go back to your early days.
PDT: I grew up in the ghetto.
BK: The ghetto?
PDT: Yeah, and I didn’t even realize we were poor, but I think that’s where I found my mental toughness.
BK: Were you always fast?
PDT: As a kid, I ran everywhere. I never walked. And a lot of people would say I’d one day become a great athlete. They thought I moved around the ghetto like a whip. They’d go: There goes Pauline!
BK: Could you see a future for yourself in running shoes?
PDT: I wasn’t aware of wanting to be a great track athlete until I went to junior high and casually went out to make the team and, when I didn’t make it, I cried and cried. That’s when the seed was planted.
BK: That seed grew quickly because, as a high schooler, you ran in your first Olympics.
PDT: At 14-years-old, I became the Bahamas top sprinter. But what I really remember is, in 1982, racing against the Jamaicans and having them beat us every year. I told my team, They’re not winning next year. I was just a little kid. But the next year we raced the Jamaicans, I won the 100m, 200m, 400m and the long jump—the first time in history any athlete had ever done that.
BK: How did your life change?
PDT: Well, I was still living in the ghetto, but they dubbed me, the Golden Girl.
BK: And when you got to the Olympics?
PDT: I was like a kid in the candy store. I remember this young American silver medallist gave me a pair of tights in Helsinki and, just like that, I was the first Bahamian to race in tights!
BK: Between 1984 and 2000, you made five Olympic teams. Does it ever become routine?
PDT: Routine? The Olympic Games? No, no, no—that’s impossible!
BK: How did the experience change?
PDT: I was much more focused as I became more mature. Nothing phased me. I was living in the zone and nobody was allowed to come into the zone. I had no idea what was happening around me. I was that clued in.
BK: Marion Jones would ultimately get disqualified for a doping violation when you got your 2000 gold medal in Sydney. What’s your take on doping?
PDT: They’re gutless, spineless athletes who take drugs, morally warped.
BK: Were you ever tempted, given the rampant use amongst your competitors?
PDT: I never had any desire to take any drugs. God gave me a gift, a gift of purpose, and he’s going to allow me to shine. I have strong faith and that’s my mentality.
BK: At 55-years-old, what’s changed about your life since your racing days?
PDT: I don’t feel 55. I exercise, coach, eat healthy, and really practice appreciation. I can’t believe how far I’ve come from the ghetto in the Bahamas to a council member for 14 years and the first Black woman on the council and the five Olympics, you know: wow.
BK: Really it’s an amazing story.
PDT: My mother always says, Sweet pea, baby, it ain’t how you start, it’s how you finish. I’m proud to have set the table for other Caribbean women in sport. Your circumstances don’t determine what you do in your life.
Top photo credit, the Nassau Guardian. Middle credit, the University of Alabama Athletics.