Hackney was a different place a decade ago. Back in 2010, the area was infamous for being the most deprived borough in London and the sixth most deprived local authority in the country. Back then, to outsiders at least, the mere mention of its name was enough to elicit looks of both sympathy and concern, which, given that it was home to a notorious stretch of road known as ‘murder mile’ and was synonymous with crime, violence and poverty isn’t any wonder.
But gentrification works fast in the capital and just two years later, in 2012, the year The Olympic Games was held on Hackney’s doorstep, The Observer commented on how: “The area’s traditional demographic – white working class, Turkish, Asian and Afro-Caribbeans – increasingly share the space with newcomers, who attend arty happenings…and then go for some organic Sussex wine.”
Hackney’s transformation has continued in the years since, and the borough is now commended for its social mobility credentials, while the number of mums sipping on “flat whites, nibbling courgette cake and chatting as their kids fight over an abacus” – again witnessed by The Observer– has multiplied too. Like most areas, gentrification has brought positives and negatives, with the main negative in Hackney being that some of the community’s residents and businesses, good people who have been there all along, have been pushed out, while the liberal elite has been transported in. But whoever the borough has been home to, one business has stood firm and continues to offer a place for all local residents to train at affordable prices. Just as it has done since 2010.
Owned by three born and bred Hackney men, Afolabi Akinola, Joshua Oladimeji and Emeka Obanye, Elite Evolution is a Black-owned gym. It’s important to say that because, as Oladimeji observes, the word Black is associated with so many negative narratives, when it’s associated with something positive, we should all shout about it. And what could be more positive than three young, Black entrepreneurs who for the past decade have successfully fought to keep their business in Hackney, while holding second jobs in education and the prison system, in order to serve the community that moulded them.
“I felt like it was our responsibility,” says Oladimeji. “We didn't shy away from that, we believe that we needed to be positive, we needed to be out there and we needed to show that there's a safe space for anybody to come in and feel like this is somewhere they can train, where they can work out and won’t be discriminated against. [And for trainers] they're not thinking that they can't go higher than being just a trainer. They can be managers. They can be owners.”
Elite Evolution was actually conceived 13 years ago, but for the first two years of its existence its owners didn't have training space so clients were trained in local parks. They got their first gym 10 years ago, but it was small and dingy and in truth not much to shout about. “If I show you pictures of what our original studio looked like,” says Akinola, “it was smaller than most people's bedrooms.” But it was theirs and it was a place that people could come to workout and to hang out. This was a community hub that doubled as a gym.
Since those early days the business has grown – as has Hackney – and the gym has had to relocate, locally, three times. Finding a suitable space hasn’t always been easy, and rising rents in the borough has made it increasingly difficult to justify staying. Akinola, Oladimeji and Obanye say they’ve looked into moving to other areas of London with diverse populations like Bow, Tower Hamlets and Islington, but having grown up in Hackney, gone to school in Hackney and with their families still living in Hackney they believe they owe the borough and are determined to stay.
“We want to create a fitness industry in Hackney and keep it there, because there's a lot of disenfranchised people that aren’t getting help,” says Oladimeji. ”We’re trying to be really resilient and trying to stay in Hackney to push that narrative and really help our community.”
Rising rates and gentrification are some of the issues Elite Evolution face, but they aren’t the only problems. While the gym is proud to call itself Black-owned, and its owners are proud to be an example of what young Black men can achieve, that hasn’t stopped them from falling victim to unconscious biases and outright racism.
“We've now made the decision that anytime we go to a viewing, we're going to dress very professionally, because we don't want any negative thoughts – the kind of negative thoughts that come with wearing a hoodie, for example – to deny us,” says Oladimeji. “Sometimes we think we should get somebody else to make the phone calls for us so we can acquire these spaces.
“There was one viewing where they asked us to show two years of our past financials and how much we're going to make plus our forecasts, before signing and that's something that's not usually asked. The reason why we know that [it isn’t asked] is we've asked other people, ‘Were you asked for that?’ And they weren't. We can't say, 'It was because of our colour’, but the difference was our colour.”
Akinola adds: “Sometimes we're faced with certain tasks and loopholes that not everybody is, whether that’s to pay a six months rent in advance prior to actually setting up the business or asking us to do things that are just out of the ordinary.”
Before starting Elite Evolution Akinola, Oladimeji and Obanye were all involved in sports. Akinola played semi-pro football, while Oladimeji and Obanye played basketball. While playing semi-professional basketball in Newcastle, Oladimeji also studied at Northumbria University. He wrote his dissertation on obesity. “A lot of the research I did was about how one of the biggest killers in Black women between the ages of 25 and 50 was obesity related diseases," says Oladimeji. "It was then that I thought we've got to do something; it's actually killing our community.”
Since Oladimeji researched and wrote that dissertation and then went on to form Elite Evolution to “do something” about the problems he identified, the statistics haven’t got any better. Research published by Sport England in 2020 showed that people from Asian, Black and Chinese backgrounds are far more likely to be physically inactive than their white counterparts, while there’s strong evidence that conditions such as type 2 diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease are found at higher levels in Black and Asian groups. Oladimeji has his own thoughts on why minorities are less likely to use gym, even though the benefits could be life changing.
“I think that's because financially they don't have a lot of disposable cash. I think when you have disposable finances, you feel like health can be a priority, but when you haven't got that it doesn't come first; feeding your children comes first,” says Oladimeji. “You've got to think, if you're going to pay £32.99 a month for a gym membership and you're only making £11 an hour on minimum wage, making that choice to eat or to exercise becomes a decision you have to make.”
While Elite Evolution’s owners are adamant they’re staying in Hackney, they do have ambitions to open more gyms around the capital and have already begun extending their business beyond a regular gym.
Alongside training members of the public, Elite Evolution is also focused on taking talented young footballers and basketballers and helping them realise their potential. For footballers, Akinola explains, “The gym will help to facilitate what they need to do on the pitch, so if they need to get stronger, we'll do weight training to facilitate that. If they need to work on their speed, we'll do work around that and then transfer it onto the pitch.” With basketballers, the trio will work on three key areas: “We call it VASS,” says Oladimeji, “so vertical, agility, speed and strength.”
But beyond talented athletes, it’s important Elite Evolution stays in Hackney because of what it does for local trainers and local people. Trainers get to see Black ownership in the fitness industry, which isn’t all that common. “When we get young trainers come into our gym they're like 'you own this?’ And ‘this is yours?' They start thinking it's possible. They see that they can acquire this thing, they can grow, it's something that they can grasp; they can attain; it is achievable.”
For everyone else, they get to see the social mobility that Hackney is now commended for, and they get to see that you don’t have to leave Hackney to achieve what you want. “I'm fortunate enough to have grown up and lived in Hackney and work in education in Hackney as well,” says Akinola. “When you're telling young people that you run a business they're just like what do you do, how did you do it, how did you get there. I think it's about representation. I think they see us and say, 'well it's possible’, ‘it's doable’. We give them our experiences, our background, and it does a lot for them. I think it inspires them, and it raises their aspirations in terms of what they want to do for their future.”
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