‘Oh you must be heavy boned.’ Marilyn Okoro’s fight for body acceptance

(CNN) — She was comfortable with her body, though others were not.

Track and field star Marilyn Okoro, whose right arm displays a “Saved by Grace” tattoo, ran with pride for Great Britain.

“I was told that I was too big to be an 800-meter runner, too short to be an 800m runner,” Okoro, an Olympic bronze medalist and World Championships silver medalist, tells CNN Sport.

GB was originally placed fifth at the 2008 Beijing Games but in 2016, third-placed Russia and fourth-placed Belarus were disqualified by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) due to doping violations, raising Okoro and her team to third place.

Okoro was awarded her 4x400m relay Olympic bronze medal at the Anniversary Games at the London Stadium in 2018.

Over the last decade, she’s also competed in a variety of European and World Championships, collecting a total of three silvers and four more bronze.

‘I can see your veins’
But as she looks back at her career, Okoro reflects perhaps bronze and silver were not quite good enough. Come to think of it, perhaps even a gold medal wouldn’t have been good enough.

She also wants to start a wider conversation about the issues surrounding women and body acceptance.

Okoro says she started to feel that she wasn’t just having to compete on the track. She was having to compete with people’s expectations and demands as to what an athlete should look like.

According to Okoro, that look was skinny, slender and tall.

“Oh, I can see your veins, this must mean you’re in good shape,” Okoro recalls a conversation she had with coach Charles van Commenee, who worked with the British Athletics team for a number of years, during the prep camp leading into the 2010 European Championships.

Okoro says that Van Commenee then asked her about her weight.

“Proudly, I was like ’60 kilograms,'” replied Okoro, who considers that her personal ideal race weight.

Okoro says that is 15kg heavier than the other athletes she raced against, placing her above traditional weight threshold norms in track and field.

According to Okoro, Van Commenee then responded: “Oh, you must be heavy boned!”

Van Commenee, who now works as a motivational speaker on “high performance culture,” told CNN Sport: “Being too light or being too heavy can cause injuries and therefore the staff, led by the head coach, has a duty to address this issue.

“It would be unprofessional to turn a blind eye but obviously the right words and the right tone have to be used in addressing the issue,” he added.

After the championships, Okoro says she began working with a nutritionist and was advised to go on a zero-carb diet.

“I just thought, ‘Okay, you’ve just taken out all my carbs, so I’m going to have no energy’ … You start to doubt yourself.”

Speaking specifically about Okoro, Van Commenee said he doesn’t want to have a public debate with the track and field athlete. He continued: “If she has a problem with anything I may or may not have said, I expect her to speak with me, which she has not done.”

However, Van Commenee recalled one conversation with his former athlete where he described Okoro “ranting about her non-selection for the 800m” at the 2012 London Olympics adding: “It was a very painful experience for her.”

Okoro remembers the conversation differently.

“In 2012, Charles and I had an exchange regarding selections, well, he was just shouting at me in the training facility which embarrassed me.”

The 35-year-old Okoro added: “It was two days before the British trials and the press got a hold of it as it potentially affected my (poor) performance at the championships and ran with the story.”

Okoro emphasized that it wasn’t to do with her weight on this occasion.

“It was more to do with him having to have his way and throw his dominance around,” she said.

‘Athletics is a complicated sport’
In the same year, Okoro lost her British Athletics funding under the UK Lottery program.

British Athletics told CNN that they wouldn’t comment on any individual decisions, but that funding allocations are made for “performance reasons.”

The criteria that determines the performance and funding decisions are published each year by the organization.

UK Athletics (UKA) 2020 World Class Programme Policy states: “We have to be realistic — athletics is a complicated sport with many varied disciplines, so one size can’t fit all.”

Another section highlights that athletes have to meet individual performance thresholds and demonstrate “ongoing global medal potential” to receive funding.

UKA follows a ‘What it Takes to Win’ data and analysis framework to assess an athlete’s medal winning capacity.

The framework talks of “key physical and technical characteristics of medal winning athletes,” which will be part of the athlete’s review process taken in person with their coach.

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According to leading sports scientist Simon Brundish, these characteristics are created through historic performance data.

“There are real genetic advantages and genetic barriers to be an elite sprinter or an elite endurance runner,” Brundish, who’s been working in international sports for 22 years, tells CNN Sport.

“Van Commenee was probably right in that Okoro was above the threshold markers, but the problem is that those markers were wrong.”

“‘The data will be based against historic 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 ‘demands of the game’ change.

“She introduces a power and speed element that didn’t exist before. The price of said power is muscle. Muscle increases weight. A similar thing happened with 800m and into all middle-distance events over the last 10 years or so

“The shape of women in particular has changed because the demands changed. Power and speed in the final 200m increased so the need for greater muscle mass increased.”

‘No exit support’
The loss of funding hit Okoro hard, she says.

“I was cut from funding very abruptly with no exit support or care for my welfare afterward, which is all too common for many athletes in the UK.

“This, as with so many international athletes, was the start of many psychological and physical hurdles I had to face,” adds Okoro, who has self-funded her career ever since.

It is not uncommon for women to be self-funded during their sports career. Tulshi Varsani, an accredited strength and conditioning coach, tells CNN Sport: “Women must pay to play.”

“Physically, I look different …”
Okoro moved to the US before returning to the UK in 2017. Since then, she has been living in Wigan in the north of England, over 200 miles away from her hometown, London.

Okoro is proud of her Nigerian heritage and looking back she says her family background helped her deal with what she saw was unnecessary attention over her body shape.

“Physically, I look different and a lot more robust and muscular than a lot of the girls that I raced. My Nigerian background… that was something I had to hold my ground on,” she says passionately.

“It plays a huge part in my achievements and striving for success.”

If she feels strongly about recognizing her Nigerian heritage, Okoro is equally passionate about taking pride in her body shape.

“We’re expressing ourselves; you know, muscles hold strong and sexy campaigns.”

According to Okoro, over the course of her career while working with different coaches, some believed she spent too much time at the gym, but the reality is she mostly trains outdoors.

“I was different to what coaches in the UK perceived to be the image and shape for an 800m runner,” Okoro said.

“These assumptions were there long before Charles [Van Commenee].”

Okoro says that her coaches focused on sprint training and not enough on endurance.

It was only when she started to have injuries that Okoro began to question the way she was being coached.

“Does this coach really understand? And are they really in it for me?” she reflects. “I was exhausted mentally and physically.

“It’s been a real struggle to prove myself as one of the best 800m runners we’ve had in this country and even in the world.”

The ‘ideal’ athlete
These days all different shapes and sizes are celebrated in lifestyle magazines, red carpets, beauty advertisements and fashion brands

But is that the case with sport?

“They are women first, athletes second,” Dr. Emily Matheson, a research fellow at the Centre for Appearance Research, told CNN Sport.

Dr. Matheson says more attention is given to the shape of their bodies rather than their performances and that the ‘ideal’ athlete is a term to describe a sleek body with minimal body fat, which is inspired by a more general Westernized view that thinness equals beauty.

This could largely be due to “gender stereotyping,” says Dr. Matheson. “It’s very common for body shaming to eventuate from gender stereotyping, so more specifically, what it means to be feminine and masculine and how our bodies defy the stereotype.”

“It’s very common for body shaming to eventuate from gender stereotyping. More specifically, what it means to be feminine and masculine and how female athletes’ bodies may defy this stereotype and in turn be ridiculed for it.”

She points out that there have been small shifts in society, such as the body positivity movement, which was originally founded by black women, who celebrated their body types and reclaimed traditionally negative terms such as “fat”

Yet Dr. Matheson also argues that the body positivity movement has been “whitewashed, with many campaigns dismissing the origins of the movement.”

Real models
Okoro is hoping to round off her 20-year career with a gold medal in the 2021 Tokyo Olympics — but just as importantly fight body image expectations.

“You’ve got one body, and it was doing pretty great for me, so I needed to look after it,” said Okoro, who has drawn inspiration from Serena Williams.

As Brundish references, Williams has been a key point in the conversation surrounding body image. The 23-time grand-slam champion was criticized for her shape and size. Two years ago, Williams published a letter online addressed to her mother sharing the struggles she’s faced with people’s body image expectations.

She wrote: “It has been said I don’t belong in women’s sports — that I belong in men’s — because I look stronger than many other women do.

“No, I just work hard, and I was born with this badass body and proud of it.”

Williams says her daughter Olympia shares the same physique and, in the letter, she expresses, “I don’t know how I would react if she [her daughter] has to go through what I’ve gone through since I was a 15-year-old and even to this day.”

“We don’t all look the same. We are curvy, strong, muscular, tall, small, just to name a few, and all the same: we are women and proud!” Williams said.

Okoro has also drawn inspiration from women athletes in rugby and football.

“They’re not your stereotypical beauty queens but they are caring less about how they look and getting dirty and delivering some great performances.”

Okoro wants a new era of role models, or as she calls them “real models.”

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