Born Fatima Vedad in Stoke Newington, North East London on March 3, 1961, Fatima Whitbread endured what she described as a ‘nightmare of a childhood’ before being adopted by her javelin coach, Margaret Whitbread, and her husband as a teenager. In 1977, Whitbread won the intermediate, or under 17, age group at the English Schools Athletic Association Championships with a throw of 43.52 metres. She subsequently represented England at the 1978 Commonwealth Games in Edmonton, Canada, where she finished sixth behind compatriot Theresa ‘Tessa’ Sanderson – the rivalry between the two would become legendary – with a throw of 49.16 metres.
Whitbread competed at the first of three Olympic Games in Los Angeles, California in 1984, winning the bronze medal behind Sanderson and Tiina Lillak of Finland. However, she is probably best remembered for her achievements between 1986 and her formal retirement from competition in 1992. At the 1986 European Championships in Stuttgart, she won the gold medal with a throw of 76.32 metres in the final, by which time she had already set a new world record of 77.44 metres – 2.04 metres further than the previous mark, set by East German Petra Felke in 1985 – in the qualifying round. In so doing, she became the first British athlete, male or female, to hold a world record in a throwing event.
At the 1987 World Athletics Championhsips, Whitbread won gold again, with a throw of 76.64 metres. That year she was created a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) in the Queen’s Birthday Honours List for services to athletics and voted BBC Sports Personality of the Year. At the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, Whitbread won the silver medal behind Felke but, thereafter, he career was dogged by a long-term shoulder injury, which eventually forced her retirement.