Life could have been so different for Kriss Akabusi. Put into foster care with his brother at the age of four while his parents returned to Nigeria, he left school at 16 with no qualifications and might easily have drifted into a dead-end job.
Instead, Kriss took responsibility for his future, signed up for service life “for safety, security and a place to belong” and literally found his feet – as the fastest man in the British Army. His talent for running was soon discovered externally and he was made a member of the UK athletics team in the 1980s. It led him to winning three Olympic medals, taking several top titles and breaking a 22-year hurdles record at the 1990 European Championships.
These days, Kriss (born Kezie Uchechukwu Duru Akabusi) is a motivational speaker, inspiring audiences with his philosophical views on the links between sport and business success.
“Sport is a great vehicle for business” he tells me. “Participants in both have to be aware of competition, to find out who are friends and who foes.”
Kriss and his brother Riba were born in Paddington while their Nigerian parents were over here studying. His mother trained as a nurse, his father joined the immigration service and later the Home Office back home. The boys were left in foster care when their parents left the UK, which I imagine would be a huge psychological issue for many people. However, Kriss is amazingly positive about his unconventional start in life.
“My parents were both intellectuals and they felt it was the right thing for us to stay here. They believed we would have a much better chance of success. I understand that, it must have been a very difficult decision to make.”
Kriss lost contact with his parents for some years, but went to Nigeria in the 1970s and met his mother, following up the visit several times until she died in 1997. His father died in 2003.
I ask Kriss about his years at the peak of his athletic prowess.
“It was an amazing time of my life, especially taking silver at the 1984 Olympics. I carry that medal everywhere with me because it means so much to me. Breaking David Hemery’s 1968 400-metre hurdles world record at the 1990 European Championships was extraordinary. He had been my hero as a child.”
Another huge moment in Kriss’s life was receiving the MBE insignia from the Queen in 1992. He recalls the moment when he was told he was being put forward for the honour. “I was training in California when I got the call and I honestly thought it was someone winding me up. I’m a real monarchist and a bit of a romantic and meeting the Queen was just incredible. She was so dignified, kind and well-briefed. She knew I’d been a soldier and we chatted briefly about it. That moment will stay with me for the rest of my life.”
Amusingly, Kriss’s two elder daughters Ashanti and Shakira who witnessed the presentation at Buckingham Palace weren’t so sure it was such a big occasion. “They couldn’t believe the Queen wasn’t wearing a tiara,” Kriss recalls with a smile.
Ashanti is now 34 and owns PR and social media company VirtuBrands. Shakira, 31, founded the online campaign #StrongLikeMum. Kriss is a proud grandfather to Shakira’s two sons Rio and Ezra who he sees regularly and clearly adores. Kriss also has a son Alannam, aged 11 and daughter Sakhile, 8, from another relationship and speaks warmly of being a dad again.
Since he came off the athletics track, Kriss has been a TV broadcaster, business consultant, keynote speaker and student. He challenged himself by undertaking an MBA course and is now embarking on his Masters in existential psychotherapy. He loves the theatre and films and is an ardent West Ham FC fan.
“Life is good,” he tells me in his characteristic upbeat and charming manner. Even his recent 60th birthday has not knocked his natural optimism, although he admits it has made him take stock.
“I realise I’m not as fit as I was. My ears and my eyes let me down and my muscular structure is diminishing, but my mind and my intellect are sharp. I hold life in awe and reverence.”
Photos: ©Oyster Bay Photography