“I was a different person before that photo,” says Darcy Bourne. “It completely changed my life.”
Bourne, a GB, England Hockey and Surbiton forward, today calls herself an activist, and has done interviews about race equality on national TV, co-founded a diversity organisation, and had her image shared by Martin Luther King III.
Four years ago, she says, she wasn’t interested in current affairs. Then, like it did for so many, the events of summer 2020 changed her – George Floyd’s murder and the movement that followed forced her to engage, and re-evaluate her perspective.
She felt compelled to attend the Black Lives Matter protests in London in 2020, and there her life changed in a flash.
“[Photographer] Misan [Harriman] came up to me and just asked if he could take a photo,” Bournetold British Elite Athletes Association (BEAA) in an interview. “I didn’t really think anything of it, because everyone was taking photos of everyone.”
The photo, of Bourne holding a hand-painted sign reading ‘Why is ending racism a debate?’, went viral.
“Edward Enninful, the Editor-in-Chief of British Vogue, posted it, and from there it kind of just took off. You had David Beckham posting it, Lewis Hamilton. This girl from my school messaged me, saying: ‘I’m sure you’ve seen it, but Martin Luther King III just tweeted your photo.’ And I think that was when it kind of hit me that this really had given me the opportunity to do something really important.”
Then an England Under-21 international, Bourne grasped the opportunity, amplifying the sentiments on her sign with every interview she did.
Bourne says that fellow sportspeople can use their platform to spread a positive message.
“I knew I was getting asked to be in these interviews and things, and I wanted to be prepared and use the power of the photo to make a positive change,” she says. “I knew I couldn’t do that if I didn’t know what I was talking about.
“I wanted to read up on more, and I asked my dad about experiences he’d had that we’d never spoken about before.
“The first interview was BBC Radio… I was actually working at Waitrose at the time: I was on my lunch break in my car and it was like 35 degrees. I was so nervous, got no sleep, and it was terrible!
“Honestly, if you’re nervous about it, it couldn’t have gone worse than how I started. I got on and the first thing I said was: “Hi, Darcy,” instead of: “Hi, I’m Darcy.” You know, the only way was up from there.
“I remember getting off it and even though my friends were laughing at me for having said that, in general the amount of positive feedback I got was incredible – and you have to focus on that.
“I remember at first I would hate looking at the camera or seeing photos after, but it’s something you get used to. In my head, every time there’s an interview released or something, if that inspires one girl who previously wouldn’t have started hockey or sport – because of the colour of their skin – to do it, then that’s what I’m thinking about.”
For many athletes, having a smaller platform or being early in their careers can feel like impediments. For others, they might feel their voice has little impact, or that it’s not their job to champion a cause.
Shortly after UK Sport research showing two in three UK adults believe athletes have a role to play in raising awareness of social issues, Bourne refutes both beliefs:
“A lot of athletes, especially in my situation where we’re young in our careers, hold back from speaking up on these issues. One, because the fear of backlash, but also feeling like our voices are insignificant if we haven’t got medals behind us.
“What I’ve learned from being in the spotlight around BLM before I started my international career is that that’s not true, and you can still be a role model, whether that’s to people at your local club, or to the whole country. Don’t underestimate your platform and your role and your voice.
“I read that… now the most impactful group of people are football players – in the whole world. People say they should just focus on football, but I think if you’ve got something to say and you’re trying to make positive change, do it, say it.
“We have this platform now, it would be a shame not to use it.”