I have competed at every level in athletics and now I’ve taken a place in the UK Athletics board room, hoping to effect the change that I want to see.
Hi, I’m Marilyn Okoro, former 400m and 800m specialist. I won bronze in the 4x400m relay at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, bronze at the 2007 World Championships, silver at the 2010 European Championships and silver and bronze at the 2011 European Championships. Along with Great Britain’s 1984 3000m Olympic silver medallist Wendy Sly, I’ve recently been appointed to the board of UK Athletics (UKA).
I have always wanted to join the UKA board. After certain experiences that I faced as an athlete and throughout my career, as I looked back I realised I needed someone to advocate for me; however that person wasn’t there. I realised the only way to really influence change was from the top, and I felt like it was a space that I kept getting told that I couldn’t have access to.
Being the disrupter that I am, I wanted to challenge that! Throughout my career one of my aims was to be in a position of real influence, authority or be able to contribute to the change that I wanted to see.
I applied to join the UKA board the last time around but didn’t get an interview. I was a bit disheartened but I went away and did a governance course, the Effective Board Member course, which was delivered by Karl George and his team and sponsored by the Professional Footballers Association (PFA), which was a real commitment to it: a declaration on my part that I wanted to do what it takes to get on a board. I realised athletes were often being asked to be on a board but I didn’t want to be a token athlete, I really wanted to contribute to the governance framework, and speak about a lot of the issues from the governance perspective. Athletics has been a fantastic sport but I feel the governance has not always been in favour of the kind of collaboration that we need for success.
I gave it another go when the applications opened this time. I had support from my mentor Clare Parnell of Onside Communications, who I connected with as part of the Women’s Sport Trust Unlocked programme; and also Oshor Williams, Assistant Education Director from the PFA.
I had a formal panel interview with the Chair and two representatives from the board. It was mainly behavioural questions, and trying to find out if I was a good fit and whether I’d bring the necessary skill set and what I felt I was able to contribute to the board. I was told the calibre of candidates was very high, and since getting appointed I’ve realised it was quite a competitive slate but I’m really happy to have come out on top.
I hope to bring to the board meetings my communication skills, my natural networking abilities, my role as an ambassador because I believe as athletes we are naturally ambassadors and I champion athletes at all levels.
I’ll bring some governance oversight when it comes to things like diversity, equity and inclusion, and ethics.
I really hope to be able to give my perspective, both from the governance side but also the athlete perspective as well. I carry a lot of lived experience that is invaluable to a board. I also think I’m a natural connector, so I hope to bridge that gap between the athletes and the executives. But I also have a level head and I like to hear all sides of an argument and make the best plan before going forward, that is the best fit for everyone.
In sport, collaboration is key, as is the ability to think strategically. As an athlete we’re always planning, goal setting, and making sure we’re thinking about the big picture and the big vision.
My advice to other athletes who are thinking about sitting on boards is: go for it!
I would recommend talking to someone who’s on a board, get an insight to how it all runs, and if you can do a course that’s always helpful and will give you that confidence; but a lot of the time they’re looking for the athlete experience so you just need to show up and be yourself and give your perspective and experiences.
Absolutely go for it: athletes are natural ambassadors and I think it’s a great way if you have a passion or desire to work in sport, to get an idea of the framework and be the change that you want to see.