The wag, that wag, the nag, the feminine realm and role in world sport is celebrated far and wide in various forms this day on the edge of International Women’s Day.
Women swimmers and other aquatic athletes have been making headlines for more than 100 years as they made their pioneering way from open water to pool, off board, in nose-clip and chucking a ball across the surface with a force fit to flatten. Much to celebrate this day (far too much to mention here, of course).
We ought, however, to mention the bad news, too, starting with the role of women in the governance of aquatic sports. On this March 8, 2017, we find a disturbing picture in the house of FINA, the international federation.
Below is a table reflecting (based on 2013-17 appointments, a small number of positions now changed due to resignations, including those of Jacco Verhaeren, this author and three senior members of the Doping Control Review Board, and other events) the balance of all members of the ruling Bureau and the committees, commissions and panels comes out at the following, discounting the nine men and one woman (the only woman on the FINA Bureau) who serve in Bureau liaison positions working with those groups of experts and supposed to convey the requests and recommendations of specialists to the ruling body that makes the bulk of decisions in between Congress sessions held every four years, the next one due this July in Budapest:
It is almost 20 years and five FINA Congress cycles since women’s Water Polo joined the Olympic program at Sydney 2000 – Bridgette Gusterson just into the International Hall of Fame in the Class of 2017 – and yet there is not a single woman on the water polo technical committee.
In the mix of vast imbalance, we find a balance of in the realm of Sports Medicine, anti-doping and ethics of 28 men to one woman.
When it comes to Synchronised swimming, only held for women for many decades, a man makes the committee cut; apart from the diving commission and the athletes’ committee, the pattern of almost all-male groups is replicated throughout the governance structure of FINA.
The gender balance at the house of FINA (2015):
|Bureau (the exec)||24||1|
|Tech Water Polo||17||0|
|Tech Open Water||17||1|
|Tech High Diving||14||2|
|Doping Control Review||7||1|
On this International Women’s Day, I leave to you to interpret the figures in the context of the wider discussions, debates and celebrations taking place across the globe in realms and at events and in media far and wide.
What we can say for sure is that women standing up for themselves were there from the very start. Take the stories of Annette Kellerman and Charlotte Epstein.
Annette Marie Sarah Kellerman, born on July 6, 1887, in Sydney, Australia, might well be described as the world’s first great professional sportswoman. And she was a swimmer, a pioneer who not only popularised swimming for women across the globe but made it possible for them to take the plunge as athletes.
She lived at at a time when women were challenging their social standing in society. Kellerman helped to disprove the lie that women were incapable of strenuous physical exercise. She did so by challenging accepted norms of dress and behaviour, suffering arrest and ultimately by winning an argument.
Sadly, none of that pioneering spirit and the lessons inherent in the Kellerman story when it comes to the welfare, health and safety of athletes, and specifically women athletes, would serve to prevent appalling abuses that went unchecked by guardians a governors of swimming in the 1970s, 198os, the 1990s and the new millennium.
In her day, Kellerman was the biggest marketing tool women’s swimming had ever known: in her wake, women were able to wear bathing suits that no longer presented the risk of them drowning in their skirts, as did the 1,000 and more women and girls who drowned when the ship ferrying them to Long Island sank in 1904 at a time when women were allowed to bathe but not swim. Her revolution liberated women in the water and led to the appearance of female competitors in Olympic waters for the first time in 1912.
Kellerman brought on her own arrest in a deliberate attempt to cause sensation to get her message out to millions. A fitness guru who taught middle-aged women to keep fit through swimming and exercise long before the video, let alone the exercise video had been invented, the Australian Mermaid was the first to place aquatic sports on the silver screen, starring in more than 20 major films and being the subject of several others, most famously in “Million-dollar Mermaid”.
In the latter, her character was played by Esther Williams (left), another leading figure in the history popularised synchronised swimming around the world.
Kellerman was born in Marrickville, Sydney to Frederick William Kellerman, a violinist, and his French wife Alice, a pianist and music teacher. When their daughter was six she had to wear steel braces to strengthen her crippled legs. Swimming was also a remedy. By 15, Kellermann had New South Wales titles in record times. It was when her parents moved to Melbourne that Kellerman took her swimming to a professional level, giving exhibitions of swimming and diving at the main Melbourne baths. She performed a mermaid act at the Princes Court entertainment centre and did two shows a day swimming with fish in a glass tank at the Exhibition Aquarium.
In 1905, she became the first woman to attempt to swim the English Channel, unsuccessfully, though she got three-quarters of the way there at the third time of asking. She wore a one-piece black bodysuit, a garment that revealed curves that were normally kept well undercover in those days. Her exploits and dress made the opinion columns, leading articles and dinner-table chatter of the day.
The Australian set up her own brand of suit, known as the “Annette Kellermans” suit, which was the prototype for the modern costume worn by women ever since. We are 113 years on from that ferry disaster and the FINA swimwear approval body includes no women.
By 1907 Kellerman had established herself as an international star after a winter season of her aquatic vaudeville show at the London Hippodrome. Her tour shifted to Boston in the United States and Kellerman went for a dip in a thigh-revealing one-piece swimsuit at Revere Beach. Arrested and charged with indecent exposure, Kellerman hit headlines across the world. The judge sided with Kellerman when she said that her suit was necessary for “unrestricted movement when swimming”. She replied:
“I can’t swim wearing more stuff than you hang on a clothesline.”
The new maillot version of her suit became a common sight at the beach, almost overnight.
Kellermann wrote several books including How To Swim (1918), a book of children’s stories entitled Fairy Tales of the South Seas (1926) and My Story, an unpublished autobiography. A lifelong vegetarian, Kellermann owned a health food store in Long Beach, California. She and her husband returned to live in Australia in 1970, five years before her death at the age of 88 on November 5, 1975, at Southport, Queensland, in swimming paradise on the Australian Gold Coast. Her remains were scattered along the Great Barrier Reef.
The Women’s Swimming Association
Today, in 2017, the letters WSA are at the helm of a campaign to replace FINA at the helm of international swimming governance in light of the international federation’s refusal to submit to review and heed the complaints of its main stakeholders. The World Swimming Association is the body working on a better way.
Back in the early days of FINA, the WSA stood for Women’s Swimming Association. Charlotte Epstein, born in 1884 in New York City, a courtroom stenographer, was the founder, in 1920. Known for promoting the health benefits of swimming as exercise, Epstein coached the USA Women’s Olympic Swimming Team in the 1920s, with startling success. One of her coaching protégés was Louis de Breda Handley, a pioneer Hall of Famer who coached a large shoal of swimmer to international success.
Known as “Eppie’s swimmers”, her own charges set 52 world records. Epstein staged “suffrage swim races” and campaigned for women’s rights and changes to swimsuits to allow women freedom of movement.
In 1923, a FINA committee was formed to consider the “International Swimming Costume”. At the Olympic Games in Paris a year later Epstein was consulted. A rule was written: it dictated that women’s suits had to be black or dark blue, be cut no lower than 8cm below the armpit, no lower than 8cm below the neck line, have material that descended into the leg by at least 10cm and, for the preservation of modesty, include a slip, back and front, at least 8cms wide.
Epstein served as manager of the USA women’s Olympic team in 1920, 1924, and 1928. A Jew, she boycotted the 1936 Games held in Nazi Germany.
The Scream of History Has Not Made The Struggle Any Easier
Skip forward to 1973, to 1976, to 1989, trawl through the 1970s, 80s, 90s and right through to this day and we find examples of young women as victims of abuse in the realm of sport.
If the mind turns to doping when we raise the word abuse, then it need also stretch to victims on both sides of that coin – and to those who have suffered sexual and psychological abuse and found the authorities they ought to have been able to turn to unwilling to step up to the plate and bat in favour of athlete welfare, safety and health, both physical and mental. FINA and those national federations charged constitutionally with setting the international federation’s pathway and agenda have not only done too little on their watches but have failed to deal with the past even when the present reveals the evidence to prove that serious abuse has been a part of their sport and screams yet from the history tome of their sports through the result sheet and the record book.
This past week, The Washington Post, ran a feature that started: “In October 1999, the former chief executive of USA Gymnastics told the U.S. Olympic Committee it had a problem. Other Olympic sport governing bodies lacked basic sex abuse prevention measures that were commonplace at the time, former USA Gymnastics CEO Bob Colarossi wrote in a letter, and child athletes were at risk as a result.”
- You can read the article in full at the Post and follow the links that lead you at that site to comprehensive coveraghe of a calamity for women and women’s sport.
It includes the following reference: “In the years that followed Colarossi’s letter, three Olympic governing bodies – USA Swimming, USA Judo and U.S. Speedskating – have come under scrutiny for allegations of mishandled complaints of sex abuse. In lawsuits and media reports, athletes in those sports and others alleged coaches and officials coercing child athletes into sex was a well-known problem ignored by governing bodies with substandard abuse prevention policies.”
More than 150 coaches and officials associated with Olympic governing bodies have been convicted of sex crimes since the early 1980s, The Washington Post notes.
That is the tip of an iceberg in terms of what is out there in the wider world, nations such as the USA, Britain and Ireland among those that have build protection policies into their sports organisations as a result of abuse, inquiries into abuse and the pursuit of preventative measures.
In 2014, an independent review of USA Swimming’s policies by a sex abuse prevention expert found many Olympic governing bodies “were historically slow in recognizing and responding to abuse.”
Nancy Hogshead-Makar, the 1984 100m freestyle champion for the USA and now a civil rights attorney and women’s rights advocate, has called for changes to the Ted Stevens Act, including an imposition on Olympic governing bodies to protect children in their ranks from sexual abuse and harassment, similar to Title IX’s requirements for schools that receive federal funding.
Head of the US Olympic committee, Scott Blackmun has rejected criticism by victim’s advocates that the law needs changing.
Politics has played its part in the story of women’s experience in sport, just as it has in the story of women’s experience in general out there in many realms in the world.
At the heart of the story of what women around the world protested against as the train-crash that is Donald Trump’s presidency is Elizabeth Warren. The senator’s story is well known but you can read the latest at Time.
The telling phrase, the mantra and a growing campaign slogan to emerge from those events are the words spoken to the man who tried to silence the woman – and failed:
“… nevertheless she persisted”.
Indeed she did:
The stuff of suffragettes is also the stuff of the suffering of generations of women swimmers and the response of those who found the courage to speak out, the stuff of woeful underrepresentation of women in the governance of international swimming.
Such things made the events surrounding that wag of the finger from Lilly King at Rio 2016 in the year Shirley Babashoff published her autobiography “Making Waves”, all the more compelling and significant. Those on the other side of the arguments in the stories of Bababshoff, King and many others were also women but take the plunge into the world of those who built the argument, controlled it, made victims of the women on both sides and we find an almost exclusively male world, one in which the chief protagonists have done their damnest to avoid being called for account or taking responsibility for truly bad agendas, events and outcomes.
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.