Make Her Praises Heard Afar

The Prime Minister of New Zealand, Jacinda Ardern, has been in the news today. The New Zealand Government launched a $10million strategy to encourage women to get involved in sport. Through the strategy, the Prime Minister said, she wants to see an increase in the involvement of women in sport at grass roots and elite levels. She also wants to encourage women to have a bigger influence in coaching and administration.

I was delighted to see the Prime Minister leading New Zealand sport forward. It is an initiative that is long overdue. I was especially pleased to see that the Government is looking for progress both on the field and in the areas of coaching and administration. For example today’s announcement included a requirement that every sport have a minimum of 40% female membership on their Boards.

That rule change is important. The presence of more women in Board Rooms will result in decisions that make sports more welcoming to female competitors. Remember it is not all that long ago that an Athletics New Zealand Board Member announced that no woman should be selected for the Olympics if a good man was available. There are still some copies of that Neanderthal around today.

The gender balance of swimming is however better than many sports. In fact female competitors usually outnumber males. The most recent figure I have seen was 58% in favor of women. With the exception of the Olympic Games clinging on to women racing 800 meters compared to 1500 meters for men the swim racing programs for men and women are identical. Why the Olympic movement should persist with the belief that women can’t race as far as men, I have no idea. Lauren Boyle seemed to swim the 1500 okay.

Not that swimming in New Zealand is perfect. The current Board has six members and only two of them are women. That’s 33% compared to the Government’s new requirement that women must total at least 40%. Jacinda is right. That needs to be fixed.

In March this year I did an analysis of the gender mix of all the Regional Boards. The table below shows the result of that study. Some of the numbers may have changed but this is what they were in March.

Region Board Total Female % Female
Swimming New Zealand (SNZ) 6 2 33%
Northland 6 5 83%
Auckland 5 1 20%
Counties Manukau 6 3 50%
Waikato 6 3 50%
Bay of Plenty 6 3 50%
Hawkes Bay Poverty Bay 6 3 50%
Manawatu 7 4 57%
Taranaki 6 3 50%
Wellington 6 1 17%
Nelson Marlborough 6 2 33%
Canterbury 6 4 66%
Otago 6 0 0%
Southland 6 4 66%
Total 84 38 45%

The SNZ Regions combined meet Jacinda’s 40% requirement. However within that pass mark the parent organization (33%) and four regions (Otago 0%, Nelson Marlborough 33%, Wellington 17% and Auckland 20%) fail the new gender balance test. That will need to be fixed before SNZ finds itself losing more of Jacinda’s money.

Women are also well represented in coaching New Zealand swimming. In fact some of New Zealand’s most successful coaches are women. Northwave in Whangarei, Waterhole and United in Auckland, HPK in Counties, Auabladz in New Plymouth and the North Canterbury Club in Rangiora are all coached by superbly talented women. It is a sad reflection on SNZ that in two decades of selecting eight National Coaches no female coach ever made the cut. SNZ always selected a male candidate.

The numbers appear to show that SNZ has a mixed record on gender issues. There is certainly no room for complacency. There are aspects of the sport that need vigilance and reform. I am acutely aware of these issues as a result of coaching women. In fact the majority of my most successful swimmers have been female. I have watched closely the journey of national representatives such as Toni Jeffs, Nichola Chellingworth, Jane Copland, Rhi Jeffrey, Penny Jones and Jane Ip. And it is not easy. The path women must walk to get to the top in swimming is more difficult than men. Women have to put up with daily rubbish that men never see or experience. That must change.

There are many small things that frustrate talented, hard working women. For example some of the women I have coached lifted very heavy weights. Just try doing 3×7 elbow raises with 45kgs or 3×7 chin-ups with 20kg tied to your waist, or 3×7 leg presses with 200kgs. It used to frustrate the life out of Toni, Jane and Rhi when men came up to them and said, “Be careful. That weight is too heavy for a girl.” It happens a lot, day after day and is terribly humiliating.

When I helping Alison with her track training I saw myself as being in the vanguard of liberal-thinking. I said things like, “You can train as hard as John Walker.” She did. She regularly completed her 10-week build-up, averaging 160 km or more each week.

And I was wrong. Discussing my enlightened views with Alan Laidler, lecturer in recreation and leisure studies at Victoria University, I was asked, “Why did you make the comparison? Why was it necessary to compare her performance with some man?” He was right. In setting up champion men as role models, I was as guilty of a serious put-down; as guilty as those who say, “You can’t train as hard as men. Do something less.”

I never make that comparison today. Gender is a non-relevant variable. Each athlete has to be taken as an individual. And so, on a day when the New Zealand Prime Minister has brought this issue to our attention there is cause to be vigilant; there is still much to do.

SwimVortex recently wrote a post on gender issues at the IOC. Their report concluded with this lovely and relevant piece of writing.

“So, women swimmers – and you blokes young and not quite so with your mothers, aunts, grandmas, sisters, girlfriends and wives about you – embrace this day that is yours, embrace the wag, the nag and the spirit of nevertheless she persisted and own the world you have a right to.”

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