This feature is the fourth in a new series in which we profile the outstanding recipients of the Women’s Leadership Award.
Female athletes might have equality on the field of play but there is an unquestionable disparity in many other areas of the sport. The Women’s Leadership Awards recognise outstanding women who have excelled as a coach, volunteer, administrator or elected official.
The Women’s Leadership Awards were created in 2009 and remain an important strategy to promote the development of women leaders and gender equity in athletics. Last year, 19 women representing 19 Member Federations were recognised for their outstanding contributions to athletics.
Very few people in the sport have dedicated themselves to athletics quite so assiduously and with as much enthusiasm as Great Britain’s Cherry Alexander, one of the Women’s Leadership Award recipients in 2017.
Cherry’s career in athletics already spans nearly four entire decades - including operational roles at both the 2012 Olympics and as the Managing Director for the 2017 IAAF and WPA World Championships - and she doesn’t harbour any plans to leave the sport just yet.
“It was very humbling,” she said on receiving the award. “You don’t set out for that but it becomes a great motivator - not to get the awards - but to know you are on the right track and want to keep it going.”
After working with Nike and Nova International in the 1980s, Cherry joined the lower rungs of UK Athletics in 1991. It was there when she came into contact with two women willing to put their heads above the parapet which had a lasting impact on her then nascent career.
“The first thing that struck me was there were two women there who were very courageous because the General Committee was hugely dominated by men and Susan Deaves and Pat Green were fantastic,” she said. “They would stand up, they would challenge the men and at that time I was a young co-ordinator watching them thinking, ‘this can be done.’”
Cherry also cites figures such as Tanni Grey-Thompson and Sarah Rowell - both of whom have excelled competitively in athletics - for their encouragement but she also cites some prominent men who have been staunchly supportive of her career.
“As I’ve moved through, one of the biggest changes has been how many more supportive men there are out there,” she said. “I have definitely come across that – Brendan Foster and David Moorcroft were always supportive of women back in the day of being in leadership roles and never felt challenged by that – they were visionary and recognised that women had a lot to offer and I was lucky to work with both of them.”
The IAAF World Championships in London two years ago were considered by many to be the best ever and Cherry had a by no means inconsequential role, acting as the Managing Director of both the IAAF World Championships and the preceding World Para-Athletics Championships in 2017 - both of which were staged in a sellout Olympic Stadium in London.
One of the legacies of the championships which Cherry is particularly proud of is the Women in World Athletics (WIWA). Cherry was keen to implement a project on gender equity which was more than a mere box ticking exercise and WIWA is still very much operational, six years after coming into fruition and is now also on the global stage with IAAF support.
“When we bid for the World Championships, we were very keen not to put a one liner in a bid document about legacy and then not deliver anything. I wanted it to be a project that was practical and made a real difference and not just be post-championships but for it to be delivered in the build-up to the championships, hence WIWA was born.”
“We had a build-up starting in 2013 and the goal was to take 13 women from Women in World Athletics and they would operate at the World Championships in a range of different functions, not just officials.
“Nobody just wants to be the quota position. We’ve seen that before - you want to get in on your own merit and what you can bring to the table. Women in World Athletics has got a long-term future, we’re going to work with the IAAF who have global plans for it and inclusion with the Area Federations.”
Cherry is also a believer in the power of sport at recreational level as well and how the preponderance of women taking up running in recent years can only be a good thing.
“It’s fantastic there are so many women out there running. If there is one thing running gave me, it’s confidence. I think more and more women running gives you more confidence and thinking time,” she said.
On her advice to young women moving through leadership positions with sport, Cherry said: “I know things have improved but there are still many challenges for women trying to get into leadership roles. I would say however - work on your own confidence and self-esteem, understand the landscape you are operating in and if you truly believe you are doing something for all the right reasons, don’t be afraid to go for it.”