Leon Reid: ‘It’s like bullying, if you give them what they want, they feed off it’

Irish sprinter is fronting new campaign highlighting how to deal with online abuse

Just when Leon Reid thinks he's already seen and heard it all he gets another reminder some people will always judge him by the colour of his skin or the sound of his voice. Especially when he tells them he's Irish.

In Madrid this week ahead of racing the 60 metres at the World Indoor Tour final on Wednesday, Reid was strolling through the hotel lobby on Monday evening when an American woman approached him asking where she might get a bottle of water. And after asking where he was from said, "how can you be Irish, you're black?"

That was still small talk compared to some of the racial abuse the now 26-year-old has experienced over the years, if not in person then certainly online. And especially given he started out running for Great Britain, before switching to Ireland in 2018: in one of his first home competitions after that, he found himself being spat at in the call room by some fellow runners, later returning to find his kit had been stolen.

All of which is why Reid wanted to help front the new campaign by the Olympic Federation of Ireland, Don’t Scroll By, which targets online hate speech and discrimination.


“When I first switched from GB to Ireland, some people were like ‘you’re not Irish, you don’t have an Irish accent’,” says Reid. “Then it would be like ‘well you can’t be Irish because you’re black’.

“But my mum was born in Ireland, and my adopted mum is from southern Ireland, it’s a bit annoying having to repeat yourself, but it’s just those little comments that nick away with you.

"I know it's not just happening to me, as you know it's happening to a lot of the footballers, even superstars like Ian Wright, it goes straight to the top, all the way down to the bottom, so I'm caught up in this web of just fake people, sending online hate, and even on Instagram now, just go on anyone's page, you can always find a negative comment or backlash."

Born in Bath and later growing up in Bristol, Reid has spoken before how one of his childhood homes had become a sort of "crack den". He spent time in around a dozen foster homes in England, through which he first came in contact with Claire Russell, living in the UK at the time and whose parents were from Enniscorthy in Wexford. She adopted him when he was 11; his birth mother Anne-Marie had hailed from Belfast and struggled with addiction for many years before she died in 2016. His father was half English and half Jamaican.

His first welcome into Irish athletics was far from open-armed, including at the 2019 Indoor Championship: “When I first switched over here, racing indoors, people pretty much wanted to fight me in the call room, thinking I don’t deserve to be here, spitting in front of me. And my kit was stolen after the race. I was here to represent myself, and my country, we’re on all the same team. That definitely made me stronger.”

He won a series of underage sprint medals when representing Britain, including a silver medal in the European Under-20 200m in 2013; citing a “lack of leadership” in British athletics, he looked to switch allegiance to Ireland in 2017. That transfer came through just in time for the 2018 European Championships in Berlin, where he made the 200m final. His 200m best is 20.27, he’s currently well on track to qualify for Tokyo this summer.

That transfer only brought more attention to his social media accounts, and Reid admits the rush to judgment wasn’t always easy to handle, or indeed ignore. “It definitely grew when I first said I wanted to switch. And it’s all the fake accounts that just pop up here, there and everywhere. And you can always tell, they’ve got no followers. As I’ve said before it could be the guy sitting next to me and I’d never know. It’s like ‘you’re not even Irish, you’re black, you shouldn’t be running for the country, you’re a disgrace . . . ’

“All of this, and that built up to the switch, and then after that I was able to delete the accounts, block them, or just ignore them, I just try not to give anyone any time if it’s not positive. When people actually take the time to educate themselves, realise where I’m actually from, then it did ease a lot more.”

Racing in Ireland for Menapians AC in Wexford, Reid improved his indoor 200m best to 20.99 seconds at the weekend, and his 60m best to 6.68 seconds, earning his place on the Irish team for the European Indoor Championships in Poland the weekend after next.

“And I always take short breaks from social media, if I’ve got something big coming up, just in case you do have that odd comment coming in, which can eat away at your energy. At first you’re like, ‘I’ll answer back’, but it’s like bullying, if you give them what they want, they feed off it.”

Irish in action in Madrid

Leon Reid is among five Irish athletes to secure an invite to World Indoor Tour Final in Madrid on Wednesday afternoon, with live coverage on TG4 from 3.55, providing one more quality test ahead of the European Indoors the weekend after next.

The event includes Poland-bound Reid (60m), Nadia Power (800m), Andrew Coscoran (1,500m) and Sarah Lavin (60m Hurdles), with Louise Shanahan also getting a start in the women's 800m. American Grant Holloway is attempting to break Colin Jacksons 27-year-old world record in the 60m hurdles while there will also be world record attempts in women's 1,500m and 3,000m. Irish in action 4pm: Women's 60m hurdles (Sarah Lavin) 4.30pm: Women's 800m (Nadia Power, Louise Shanahan) 4.41pm: Men's 60m (Leon Reid) 5:58pm: Men's 1,500m (Andrew Coscoran)

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan

Ian O'Riordan is an Irish Times sports journalist writing on athletics