From martial arts to visual arts, Olympian artist Neil Eckersley’s classic underdog story

The year was 1980, and British judoka Neil Adams had just won a silver medal at the Olympic Games in Moscow. Some 3,000km away, in Salford, Manchester, a 16-year-old dyslexic and somewhat hyperactive kid who was always in trouble at school was watching, completely enthralled. “It was a turning point in my life,” says Neil Eckersley, one of the seven Olympian Artists-in-Residence in the Beijing Olympic Agora programme

City of ice / 2021 - Neil Eckersley City of ice / 2021 - Neil Eckersley

“I remember telling my father that I was going to be at the next Olympic Games. He asked me what I was going to do about it. With hard work and determination, I managed to do it. Four years later, I competed at Los Angeles 1984 and won a bronze medal. I then also went to Seoul 1988, where I was honoured to be the team captain.”

Eckersley almost makes it sound simple, but by his own admission he could have gone down a completely different path. A rather modest background combined with a learning disorder meant that he was classified as a “street kid” or a “naughty kid” in school. He found his only refuge in art, and sport.

“These were the only two things that were good for me at school,” says Eckersley, who is now based in Lancaster, UK. “The only positive comments I got were from those two teachers.”

The initiation into judo came almost by accident, though, when during a particularly dull summer his next-door neighbour signed up her son and Eckersley for a trial class at the local judo club – just to keep them out of trouble. It worked, and Eckersley never looked back. In fact, in almost no time he became the U16 national champion.

For much of the next four years, Eckersley devoted himself completely to his sport and training. He would cycle an hour and 40 minutes to the training centre, train all day and then head back home. Upon seeing his dedication, the coach invited him to live with him and train with him full time.

It was during this time that celebrated coach and British judo legend Tony MacConnell visited Manchester and spotted the spirited young Eckersley. Having already coached Neil Adams to glory in 1980, MacConnell was looking to take a new squad under his wing, and Eckersley fit right in. They started training in an old church hall, which today is Kendal Dojo, ranked among the best in the UK if not Europe.

“From then on, it was junior nationals, then junior worlds, followed by junior Europeans and finally, the Olympic dream was achieved,” Eckersley reminisces.

“And then that was a whole different story!” he laughs. “It was like a party atmosphere. We had free ice cream, vending machines with sodas that were free – we couldn’t believe it. We were like kids in a candy store.”

Neil Eckersley Neil Eckersley

Despite the party atmosphere, though, Eckersley went on to win a bronze medal in the men's extra-lightweight division (-60kg) category, and it changed his life; not only in terms of fame and success, but also in his approach to everything in life.

“I find myself explaining to people that the Games are more than a sporting competition. They are a coming together of the whole of humanity, to celebrate participation and achievement. Even though I am not religious, the Games feel spiritual to me."

Art also ushered him onto a more spiritual path, especially after the tragic death of his brother.

“Even before that, I was very much into art,” Eckersley reveals. “During the Olympic Games, I used to take out time to visit art galleries, and I could never find a companion among my judo mates – all they wanted to do on an off day was sleep!"

Neil Eckersley Neil Eckersley

“But it was after the loss of my brother that I got serious about painting. I discovered it was a way to release my intense emotions at the time. Even today, there are some days that I just have to paint; it is a way to channel my emotions."

“To me, the approach to sport and art is exactly the same. As a judo athlete, I had the reputation of being open, free thinking and creative. At the same time, I was disciplined, professional and totally dedicated to becoming the best I could possibly be. I have adopted the same principles and mindset in my career as an international artist.”

Having retired from active competition some years ago, Eckersley dedicates himself to painting, coaching and working with youth. His positive attitude towards life and his belief in the power of the mind led him to co-found MIND-SET, a mindfulness coaching programme that is changing the lives of young athletes.

“I have a connection with difficult kids,” he says. “I love getting them to engage, getting them back in school. I am always guided by the Olympic values and principles, and I use them in everyday life. I feel it is my obligation to be an example for others to follow.”

It is these very Olympic values, and the magic of winter sports, that have inspired Eckersley’s trilogy of artworks created for the Beijing 2022 Olympic Agora. He is one of seven Olympian artists selected for the programme. The piece entitled “Frozen in Time” represents the mental space often described by athletes and coaches as “the zone” – the moment when an athlete is totally focused on producing their ultimate performance, with no understanding or concept of reality. “City of Ice” represents the whole team and community that supports an Olympian throughout their journey, and “Beijing Calling” celebrates the invitation to the world’s youth to come together to participate with a spirit of excellence, friendship and respect.

Frozen in time (L) - Beijing calling (R) Frozen in time (L) - Beijing calling (R) / 2021 - Neil Eckersley

“I am deeply honoured to be part of this amazing project,” he says of the Olympian Artists-in Residence programme. “It feels as though I have another opportunity to represent my sport, my nation and fellow Olympians on the Olympic stage.”

Launched by the Olympic Foundation for Culture and Heritage at PyeongChang 2018, the Olympian Artists-in-Residence programme celebrates the link between sport and culture by offering opportunities to athletes with artistic interests to produce and present new artworks during and between editions of the Olympic Games. 

Neil Eckersley (GBR)
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Launched by the Olympic Foundation for Culture and Heritage at PyeongChang 2018, the Olympian Artists-in-Residence programme celebrates the links between sport and culture by offering Olympians with artistic interests opportunities to produce and present new artworks during or between editions of the Olympic Games.
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