Neil Eckersley uses his Olympic experience to capture the true essence of the Games in art

Big Interview: Craig Salmon talks to former Olympian turned artist Neil Eckersley

By Craig Salmon
Thursday, 24th February 2022, 8:00 am

Neil Eckersley always felt slightly different to the rest of his peers in the classroom at school. It was only when he was diagnosed with the learning disorder dyslexia that life became a little bit clearer for himself, his family and his teachers.

While the condition – which causes affected people to have difficulties with reading due to problems identifying speech sounds and learning how they relate to letters and words – has been a lifelong issue for the 57-year-old, it has certainly not been a barrier to him fulfilling his potential.

Indeed, it could be argued that Eckersley – who lives in Lancaster – has accomplished more than most during adulthood.

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Neil Eckersley with his paintings which were showcased at the Olympic Agora

Although academic subjects may have been a struggle due to his dyslexia, it was no impediment to him excelling in other areas.

Eckersley was so good in the field of sport that he went on to win an Olympic bronze medal in judo at the Los Angeles Games in 1984 – and also went on to compete in Seoul, in South Korea, four years later.

And after finally hanging up his Judogi for good as a competitor, Eckersley then went on to develop and indulge in his other great passion – art. Losing his older brother in tragic circumstances was the catalyst for Eckersley to explore his love of painting around two decades ago.

With a stunning portfolio of works being showcased all over the world, he has boasted exhibitions of his work in Manchester, Norway, Paris, Hong Kong, Budapest, Baku, Tokyo – as well as the Storey Gallery, Lancaster, in 2015.

Neil Eckersley won judo bronze at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles

His history as an Olympian also means that he was commissioned to produce works as one of the official artists for the 2022 Winter Olympics, which was held in Beijing, China.

A valued member of the Olympian-Artists-in-Residence group, Eckersley can utilise his unique abilities as an artist coupled with his experience of being a competitor to capture the true essence of an Olympic Games in art.

His three pieces were showcased at the Olympic Agora – a tradition from Ancient Greece which presents an unique cultural project; a vibrant space for the expression of arts, culture, creativity and the values linked to the Olympic Games.

“My art has been in the making for over 20 years,” said Eckersley. “I tragically lost my older brother and art became a way for me to cope with that.

“At the time I was asked by a friend, ‘What else were you good at school?’

“I was obviously good at sport, but was also food at art so that’s how I got started.

“I got my first easel and canvas and it went from there. I used art as a way to get through that difficult period in my life.”

Eckersley’s participation at the 2022 Olympic Agora stemmed from his paintings depicting martial arts at the Judo World Championships from 2016 to 2019.

“I have been involved for a number of years with the organisation called Art of the Olympians,” he said.

“What it recognises is that quite a lot of retired Olympians are gifted in other ways – such as being creative painters, directors or photographers. We have been working on a project to try to get it underneath the umbrella of the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

“That happened two years ago so from now on, during every Olympic Games, there is going to be this exhibition by the Olympic artists. So I was asked around four months ago to submit some paintings.

“I am classed as an abstract artist. I have worked with the International Judo Federation.

“At every world championships we have an exhibition – the last being in Tokyo in 2019.

“That’s been really successful but I am not really classed as a sports artist, even though I have produced several judo pieces.

“This is the first time that an artist has been allowed to produce work outside of sport.

“What I have got a reputation for is kind of capturing the essence or the feeling of the Games.

“Two of the pieces are cityscapes and the third one is called ‘Frozen in Time’ which is about capturing ‘the zone’. “All Olympians will talk about being in the zone when they compete and I have tried to represent that in the painting.”

Eckersley – who was born in Salford – was certainly in the zone nearly 38 years ago when he captured a bronze in the extra lightweight category in LA at the tender age of 20.

“Nobody expected me to win a medal,” he said.

“The guy I lost to in the semi-final was a Japanese athlete called Shinji Hosokawa and he was untouchable.

“He went on to win the gold beating Kim Jae-yup, of South Korea, in the final.

“To win the bronze medal I fought the Italian Felice Mariani, who is a bit of legend in our sport.

“Nobody expected me to win that one bar myself of course.

“Sometimes that’s not a bad thing. When you’re young, you don’t tend to really feel the pressure whereas Mariani felt all the pressure.

“Winning a bronze was a surprise but not to me. I wasn’t being cocky but I knew that I had done all the work.

“All the training I had done was in my legs. I knew I was in the best possible shape and 99% of the time at that level, it’s in your head.

“If you go into it with the right attitude then you have got a great chance of getting the results that you deserve.”

Eckersley’s abiding memory of his appearances at the Olympics was the wonderful atmosphere of being part of the greatest sporting show on Earth.

“We were in the Olympic Village and the best way I can describe it is that it was a party atmosphere,” he sad.

“It was just a great vibe. You would be rubbing shoulders with people like Carl Lewis and those sort of sporting greats.”

After retiring from competition, Eckersley moved into coaching and coached the national junior men’s team. Today, he is still actively involved with the sport at different levels.

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