Women in Sport – Published by www.parliament.uk – UK Government


A personal experience and thoughts

My name is Fiona Oakes and I am an amateur athlete – a Marathon Runner. I have been running competitively for around 15 years. I compete for many reasons, some of which are a passion for sport, health, the promotion and benefits of a healthy diet and exercise and to encourage women all over the world they too can compete and achieve in grueling events successfully. Last year I broke 3 World Records for the Marathon.

Over my years in competing in some of the biggest and most prestigious races in the World, I have become quite surprised to note the seeming lack of interest and participation from the younger generation in races – many smaller events being won by age group athletes.

It shocks and disturbs me to witness this as I feel that young people are leading very unhealthy lifestyles which are often Press and Media driven. This is why I started my own Foundation – the Fiona Oakes Foundation – in order to encourage an interest in sport and, particularly, to promote my passionate belief in the benefits of a vegan – or plant based – diet. My credentials and details of my Marathon successes are outlined below.

I won the North Pole Marathon in April 2013 in a new Course Record. Whilst I was there I was encouraged by a lot of the other competitors to try for the 7 Continents + Polar Ice Cap World Record. This meant running a Marathon on every Continent plus the Pole in the shortest amount of elapsed time. The current record being 324 days – I hoped to complete it in 225 days. However, as time wore on I did begin to wonder whether it was viable financially as I have an Animal Sanctuary to run and all our funds are needed there. I put the World Record attempt a little bit on the back burner whilst I tried to see if I could raise funds. It didn’t look hopeful but I was desperate to give it a try so my Mum and Dad offered to re-mortgage their cottage for me to do it. This was going to go ahead but then, at the last minute, an elderly lady from France and a gentleman from the USA offered to fund the Challenge as they were keen to promote the benefits of a vegan diet in a positive, proactive and peaceful way. This seemed like a great platform to do this.

My first Marathon was on 11th August on the Isle of Man and I won it. I didn’t go out there to do so as I knew it was going to be a tough challenge to run all the 7 Continent races in such a short space of time – I now only had 14 weeks before the Antarctic race which I had to run if I wanted to complete the World Record. From then on I ran 4 other road Marathons – in Australia, Asia, America and Africa (all in well under the London Marathon Championship qualifying time of 3hrs 15 minutes). I podium placed in most of the races too, often only being beaten by the east African contingent present at the events. The schedule was really hectic as I had to be back very quickly to take over the care of the animals as my partner used all his holiday from work to be here when I was away (his salary funds most of the Charity bills and he works in an investment bank). For instance, I was away – door to door – to run in Australia for less than 5 days and I placed 3rd overall in the race. For all these whirlwind visits I incurred no injuries, significant illness or had any jet lag. After the road Marathons I went to Chile and ran the highest average altitude race – at 14,400 feet – ever run. Unfortunately, I twisted my knee here as the terrain was so bad – even the great Mohamad Ahansal was seen to walk in this one. However, I still went to Antarctica to run only 5 days later (or as I believed I would have to, walk) round as this was absolutely pivotal to the World Record. I managed to recover myself enough to not only complete the Marathon there but I also won it and again, as at the North Pole, I broke the Course Record.

I actually not only broke the World Records for the quickest woman to run the races in time elapsed but also in actual running time too. I also broke the World Record for the fastest woman in running time to run a Marathon on every Continent – even though all my 7 Marathons had to be run in the space of 14 weeks. These were totally separate records held by totally different women.

I had hoped to inspire others from what I do as I have a severe knee disability – no knee cap on the right side due to extensive surgery whilst very young and I was actually told I would never walk again, let alone run. Also, I have no Coach, no running club to train with and I always train alone. I have a very hectic life and training has to be fitted in around a work day which starts at 3.30 a.m. and finishes when the jobs are done. It also has to be achieved on a very shoestring budget so I have no money for fancy kit, treatments, massages etc.

I have achieved other significant results with my Marathons having placed 22nd overall in London, 17th in Berlin, 9th in Amsterdam and top 5’s in Florence, Nottingham and Moscow etc. I turned to the more ‘ultra’ or ‘extreme’ races in 2012 – my first effort being Marathon des Sables which I completed, despite having two fractured toes incurred the week before the race having had my foot stepped on by an elderly horse.

I do this to raise funds for the Animal Sanctuary I own and run but also because I have been a vegan since the age of 6 years old. This is totally my choice and I am not trying to push that onto anyone else. It is simply that I became frustrated at the negative press veganism tends to get in that it seems to be a belief the diet is in some way lacking in nutrition and if you follow it you will be a weakling or unable to perform acts of extreme endurance. To be frank, I just wanted to show, in what is becoming an increasingly unhealthy world, there are other options which are very viable. I have now won Marathons (7 in total – 6 in Course Records), run quickly in them, run the hottest, coldest, highest and toughest races just to try and do something positive for others.

Since returning from Antarctica on November 30th I have attempted to raise Press and Media interest in what I have achieved but have had absolutely no uptake on my story whatsoever. My conclusions on the reasons to this are as follows:

Women’s sport is viewed, in most instances, as secondary to men’s sport by virtue of the fact that – apart from in a very few instances such as equestrianism – women do not compete equally in strength and times etc. Therefore, the ‘ultimate’ winner of a race or competition or event will always be the strongest, fastest, highest etc. and this is – in nearly all instances – a man. Therefore, women are on the ‘back foot’ before they even start competition even though their performances in terms of power to weight ratio might be far superior to that of a man.

Women are judged far more on appearance than men (how many times do you hear a commentator in tennis for instance, discuss a male player’s outfit?)

However, I believe the biggest problem and hurdle to encouraging young girls into sport is the Press and Media attitude and their continual obsession with notoriety rather than achievement. Via my social network sites and website I have had enormous amounts of people globally – many young girls – writing to me saying what an inspiration my story has been to them and their total bemusement as to why my achievements have not been recognised in my own country by the Press. A great many articles about ,my 7 Continents Challenge have been printed in the global Press – America, Russia, Holland, Australia being just a few of the countries where Press interest has been great but not in the UK. Despite many press releases, telephone calls, e-mails and letters I have had no interest in my story – the papers preferring to lead with bad news, sensationalism or gossip. An example of the direct impact this has on young women in the UK is that just before Christmas I was contacted by a teacher in an all girls’ school. He asked if he could address the girls in an Assembly he was to give citing my achievements. The talk went exceedingly well and both the girls and other teachers were highly impressed as to what I had done and why. They asked lots of questions, which he was pleased to answer but the one question he couldn’t answer was when many of the audience asked ‘why hadn’t they heard of me?’ He had to answer that he simply didn’t know – something which he felt quite ashamed and embarrassed by.

We live in a society where the Press and Media have almost omnipotent power over their readers or viewers and consequently, achievement is judged by whether you have featured in ‘the news’. If you haven’t, it isn’t ‘newsworthy’ and therefore not important. We are creating a whole generation of people who are ‘famous for being famous’ and this is what the young of today are aspiring to emulate.

In short, why would any young girl want to live a life of discipline, denial and dedication to achieve in sport when fame and fortune is so much more attainable by being on a reality show, inappropriate behavior or personal appearance or relationships? The facts are the life of an athlete is extraordinarily demanding, has no guarantees, can be ended abruptly by injury, does not come with the promise of huge financial gain or reward and requires enormous amounts of discipline and dedication. I know because I have put an awful lot of my life into achieving what I have in the hopes of encouraging others to do the same and now I have achieved – what for me is the ultimate goal of 3 World Records for my Country – I find it does not warrant even a few column inches.

Yes, I have received personal satisfaction for what I have done but if you asked me if I could offer words of encouragement to motivate a young girl to do the same, after the way I have been treated and what I have sacrificed, I would have to say I don’t have any.

The reasons young girls are not interested in sport is they are not encouraged by the Press and media to be so. For sure, Jessica Ennis is a hugely successful and ideal role model but how many girls will ever aspire to the heights she has? We need to focus on more attainable goals for these young women to aspire to as stepping stones as, in today’s society, if something cannot be achieved almost immediately, people are unwilling to consider persevering for very long.

Whether we like it or not, people tend to believe what they read in the Press or see on the television. Until they start to focus more on personal achievement after years of dedicated struggle rather than the ‘quick fix – name in lights’ mentality, you simply won’t encourage anyone – let alone young girls – to become more interested in sport. As a final note, I would back up my claim by siting the BBC’s own John Inverdale’s comment after Marion Bartoli had achieved her greatest ever moment on the tennis court.

I rest my case!

Fiona Oakes

The Fiona Oakes Foundation

January 2014

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