Star Trek Marilyn Okoro, whose right arm depicts the “Saved by Grace” tattoo, proudly ran after the UK.
GB was originally fifth at the 2008 Beijing Games, but in 2016, third-placed Russia and fourth-placed Belarus were disqualified by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for doping violations, raising Okoro and her team to third place.
“I can see your veins”
But as he looks back on his career, Okoro reflects how bronze and silver weren’t good enough. Imagine that, even a gold medal would not be good enough.
He also wants to start a broader conversation about the issues surrounding the acceptance of women and the body.
Okoro says she’s starting to feel like she doesn’t have to just compete on the track. She had to compete with people’s expectations and demands of what an athlete looked like.
According to Okoro, that look was thin, slender, and tall.
“Oh, I see your veins. That must mean you’re in good shape,” recalls Okoro of a conversation he had with coach Charles van Commenee, who worked with the British national athletics team for many years, during his run-up to the 2010 European Championships. .
Okoro says Van Commenee then asked her about her weight.
“I proudly weighed about 60 pounds,” replied Okoro who believes her personal ideal race weight.
She almost says she weighs 15 pounds heavier than the other athletes she raced against, putting her above traditional weight thresholds in the track and on the field.
According to Okoro, Van Commenee then replied, “Oh, you must have been heavily excavated!”
“It would be unprofessional to close your eyes, but obviously the right words and the right tone have to be used in solving the problem,” he added.
After the championship, Okoro says she started working with a nutritionist and advised him to go on a carbohydrate-free diet.
“I just thought, ‘Okay, you just took all my carbs out, so I don’t have energy’ … Start to doubt yourself.”
Speaking specifically about Okoro, Van Commenee said he did not want to have a public debate with the athlete. He continued, “If there’s a problem with anything I could, and maybe I didn’t say, I expect her to talk to me, which she didn’t do.”
However, Van Commenee recalled one conversation with his former athlete, where Okoro described “anger over her non-selection in the 800m” at the 2012 London Olympics, adding: “It was a very painful experience for her.”
He almost remembers the conversation differently.
“In 2012, Charles and I had an exchange when it came to selections. Well, he was just yelling at me at the gym which embarrassed me.”
The 35-year-old Okoro added: “It was two days before the British trials, and the press accepted it because it potentially affected my (bad) performance in the championship and started with a story.”
He almost pointed out that on this occasion it had nothing to do with her weight.
“It had more to do with having to have his own way and throw his dominance around,” she said.
‘Athletics is a complicated sport’
In the same year, Okoro lost British funding to Athletics as part of the UK Lottery program.
The British Athletics told CNN that it would not comment on any individual decision, but that the distribution of funds is done for “performance reasons”.
The criteria that determine performance and funding decisions are published annually by the organization.
UK Athletics (UKA) 2020’s world-class program policy says, “We have to be realistic – athletics is a complicated sport with many different disciplines, so one size can’t fit everyone.”
The second section points out that athletes must meet individual thresholds and show the “permanent potential of a global medal” in order to receive funding.
UKA follows a data and analysis framework of “What it takes to win” to assess an athlete’s medal winning ability.
According to leading sports scientist Simon Brundish, these characteristics arise through historical performance data.
“There are real genetic advantages and genetic barriers to being an elite sprinter or an elite endurance runner,” says Brundish, who has been working in international sports for 22 years, he told CNN Sport.
“Van Commenee was probably right that Okoro was above the thresholds, but the problem is that those markers were wrong.”
“‘The data will be based on historical norms. BMI, maybe even skin folds. Which is fine for say tennis, in the’ 80s, where all women look the same. Then Serena appears. Suddenly the ‘game requirements’ change.
“It introduces an element of power and speed that didn’t exist before. The price of that power is muscle. Muscle increases weight. A similar thing has happened with 800m in all medium distance events in the last 10 years or so
“The shape of women in particular has changed as requirements have changed. Strength and speed have increased in the last 200 meters so the need for more muscle mass has increased.”
“No exit support”
The loss of funding hit Okoro hard, she says.
“I gave up funding very abruptly without subsequent support or concern for my well-being afterwards, which is too common for many athletes in the UK.
“This, as with so many international athletes, was the beginning of many psychological and physical obstacles I had to face,” adds Okoro, who has self-funded his career ever since.
It is not uncommon for women to self-finance during their sports careers. Tulshi Varsani, an accredited strength and fitness coach, told CNN Sport: “Women have to pay to play.”
“Physically I look different …”
He almost moved to the US before returning to the UK in 2017. He has since lived in Wigan in the north of England, more than 200 miles from his hometown, London.
He is almost proud of her Nigerian heritage and looking back to say that her family background has helped her cope with what she saw as unnecessary attention due to her body shape.
“Physically, I look different and a lot more robust and muscular than a lot of the girls I’ve raced with. My Nigerian background … it’s something I had to hold on to with my hands,” he says passionately.
“It plays a huge role in my accomplishments and aspirations for success.”
If he feels a strong recognition of his Nigerian heritage, Okoro is equally passionate and proud of the shape of his body.
“We express ourselves; you know, muscles maintain strong and sexy campaigns.”
According to Okoro, during her career while working with different trainers, some believed she spent too much time in the gym, but the reality is that she mostly trains outside.
“I was different from what coaches in the UK perceive as the image and shape of 800-meter runners,” Okoro said.
“Those assumptions were there before Charles [Van Commenee]”.
Okoro says her coaches focused on sprint training and not enough on endurance.
It wasn’t until he started getting injuries that Okoro began to question the way he coached him.
“Does this coach really understand? And are they really there for that?” she thinks. “I was exhausted mentally and physically.
“It was a real fight to prove ourselves as one of the best 800-meter runners we’ve had in this country and even in the world.”
An ‘ideal’ athlete
These days, all the different shapes and sizes are celebrated in lifestyle magazines, red carpets, beauty commercials and fashion brands
But is that the case with sports?
“First they’re women, second they’re athletes,” Dr. Emily Matheson, a research fellow at the Center for Appearance Research, told CNN Sport.
Dr. Matheson says more attention is paid to the shape of their bodies rather than their performances and that the “ideal” athlete is a term that will describe an elegant body with minimal body fat, inspired by the more general Western view that thinness equals beauty.
This could happen in large part because of “gender stereotyping,” Dr. Matheson says. “It’s very common for body shame to arise from gender stereotyping, to be more precise, what it means to be feminine and masculine and how our bodies defy stereotype.”
She points out that there have been small shifts, such as positive body image movement, and points out that it was originally developed by black women who were trying to regain ownership of their bodies and use the word “fat”.
However, Dr. Matheson also claims that the movement of a positive body image is “blackened.” “At the end of the day, those campaigns can be superficial,” she said.
He almost hopes to round off his 20-year career with a gold medal at the 2021 Olympics in Tokyo – but just as important to resist body image expectations.
“You have one body, and it went pretty well for me, so I had to be careful,” said Okoro, who drew inspiration from Serena Williams.
As Brundish states, Williams was a key point of conversation around the body image. The 23-time Grand Slam champion has been criticized for her shape and size. Two years ago, Williams posted a letter online to his mother in which he shares the struggles she faces with the expectations of human body image.
“No, I’m just working hard, and I was born with that bad body and I’m proud of that.”
Williams says her daughter Olympia shares the same view and, in the letter, expresses, “I don’t know how I would react if I [her daughter] has to go through what I went through from my 15-year to today. “
“We don’t all look the same. We’re curly, strong, muscular, tall, small, to name a few. And we’re all the same: we’re women and proud!” Williams said.
He almost drew inspiration from both rugby and football athletes.
“They’re not your stereotypical cosmetic queens, but they care less about what they look like and whether they get dirty and put on great performances.”
He almost wants a new era of role models or, as she calls them, “real models”.