Marilyn Okoro, a talented middle-distance runner once hailed as the next Kelly Holmes, has spent the past few days writing letters to private sponsors in an attempt to secure her financial future.
The 800m runner says she faces a battle to pursue her athletics career after UK Athletics this week announced that it would be dropping several high-profile athletes, including Paula Radcliffe, Mark Lewis-Francis and Okoro, from its world-class performance programme.
"I'm not going to lie, there was a point where I was thinking: 'Is it time to call it a day?'" says the 28-year-old Okoro. "I need to pay my bills, I need to support my family – knowing there are other people who depend on me, it becomes a little bit scarier. I need that security for them as well."
The Londoner says she knew the funding cut was coming after a UKA selection panel made the controversial decision to leave out three world-class 800m runners for the London Games in favour of one less experienced athlete, Lynsey Sharp. "The letter [notifying Okoro of the funding decision] said: 'We don't see you improving,' and, as far as I'm concerned, after the year I've had, I could have read that and thought: 'What's the point? Why keep going?' But I didn't come into this sport with the aim of being on funding.
"I had to work damn hard before anyone recognised me as a decent 800m runner, let alone world-class. I had to run 1min 59sec, so the fact they're funding people who they 'see potential in' now, who have never even run that … they're saying that [those athletes] will improve and I won't. I know that's a load of rubbish."
Okoro, who first ran under two minutes for 800m in 2006, is disappointed by the support she received from the governing body. "I may have been on a world-class funding programme but everything around me was not world-class. When you look at Jess Ennis or Mo [Farah] you see everything around them is just on point."
Despite attempts to follow the UKA endurance camp model – including attending high-altitude camp in Kenya – Okoro says that as a 400m/800m runner she was never going to be a natural fit on the programme. "They try to tell me I'm too old to be a medallist. Well, if you look at 800m medallists – apart from some freak Africans, which is another ball game – their peak starts at 28, which I've just turned this year. What age did Kelly [Holmes] win? Thirty-four."
Okoro is not the only athlete to have criticised UKA's funding decisions this week. The 5,000m runner Steph Twell, whose early talent earned her comparisons to a young Radcliffe, called her removal from funding "short-sighted" and the 400m hurdler Rhys Williams, who was crowned European champion this summer, made reference to the "politics" involved in the process. Despite the announcement the multi 4x400m medallist, says: "It's a chance for me to take ownership of the decisions that are being made about me … Hopefully this year will make me rather than break me."
Michael Afilaka, coach of the Olympic sprinter Jeanette Kwakye, who has just lost her funding, and the teen sensation Adam Gemili, who has been installed on the world-class performance programme for the first time, says the funding fortunes of his athletes have always been irrelevant to their ability to perform.
"It's not going to affect us," says Afilaka. "When you tell someone you've lost the lottery [funding], someone wants to jump off the edge of their bed and end it all, but I try to coach the guys into being self-sufficient." The Lee Valley-based coach has a unique arrangement whereby medical students and recent graduates provide physiotherapy support on a shoestring budget enabling athletes without income to pursue their athletics career.
But for one veteran of the UK athletics scene the decision may well spell the end of his career. Marlon Devonish, who has competed for Great Britain every year since 1997, winning Olympic gold in the 4x100m final in Athens in 2004, says he faces a dilemma over whether to continue competing. "It's a massive question right now," says the 36-year-old who was left out of the London Games squad. "It would have made it easier if I had competed at 2012 and gone out on a high. At the moment it's still up in the air. I'm going on holiday and I'll come back and make a decision soon."
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