(In)equality and British Swimming two years after London: “In this bright future you can’t forget your past”

By Craig Lord. An amalgamation of the author’s past and ongoing work on the subject of equality in swimming.

THE GENDER DEBATE AS A LITMUS TEST OF GOOD GOVERNANCE

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Spectacular venue for most of the men’s Masters races at London 2016 – but most of the women’s races were in the inferior “warm-up” pool. Photo courtesy of SwimVortex.

Failure to pay adequate heed to equality is arguably central to many of the problems in our sport federations, and swimming is no exception. Against the backdrop of the current governance crisis in the male-dominated arena of world swimming and Jess Varnish’s discrimination action against UK Sport and British Cycling, it is worth recalling that in 2016 British Swimming had to settle legal claims alleging widespread sex discrimination at the London 2016 European Aquatics Championships. At that event, most of the men’s Masters’ races were held in the Olympic competition pool, with the women’s races disproportionately relegated to the much-inferior warm-up facility. In the aftermath of the event – derided by swimmers as a “fiasco”, “shambles” and the “worst-organised Masters event ever” – British Swimming undertook to analyse the data from the event and to use it “to strive to achieve our objective of equal treatment”.

So two years on, how do things look? According to those at the forefront of the equality cause, the response has been a “massive disappointment” – and illustrates exactly why swimming governance is in such crisis.

ARE SWIM BOSSES EQUAL TO THE TASK OF DELIVERING EQUALITY?

Inter county June 2017 50 back in 240 plus relay

2017 article on makeup in the pool was criticised by female Masters swimmers

In the quiet backwaters of the current governance crisis, let’s start with the latest glimpse in the British media of where it all goes wrong in the equality sphere.

The BBC headline summed up the story with “Swim England removes article which advised women how to look slimmer in pool”.

An apology from Jane Nickerson, the head of the largest GB federation, followed. There was little else it could have done (barring not having published the offending article in the first place).

On its website was an article advising women what they might do to look slimmer in the pool. References to women with a “jiggly belly” being well advised to avoid wearing bikinis and the pear-shaped body that has “often been the plague of women” might have led one to believe we were dealing with a recollection of bygone times in the vast archive of things long past their sell-by date. But no. It was written in 2010, the year in which victims of sexual abuse in American swimming were challenging USA Swimming openly on its 30-year tardiness in taking “Safe Sport” seriously.

There the 2010 article sat unchallenged until 2018, when it and another blog entry headlined “Glamour in the Pool”, published in 2017, drew the eye of women Masters swimmers. Swimmers were appalled by language more commonly associated these days with the exchanges Anette Kellerman was forced to have with judges 111 years ago when men questioned the skimpiness of a bodysuit fit to reflect the athleticism of a woman and save lives.

The Million Dollar Mermaid, Esther Williams, Fanny Durack and all the rest might well have been turning in their aquatic graves a century beyond their time given such questions as “Have you ever been pleased with your performance but not with your appearance? Well, I certainly have.” Alongside, a picture of a pouting, toe-pointing woman in a pose fit for the follies of Johnny ‘Tarzan’ Weissmuller’s day but somewhat out of place in 2018.

The 2017 article, written by a woman Masters swimmer, came in for heavy criticism from her peers in the pool. The 2010 article was removed, while the 2017 article was not, although the words were subsequently edited to remove what some swimmers described as “offensive” comments about the appearance of swimmers in their 50s and 60s.

One swimmer wrote: “I was somewhat taken aback by the statement about women swimmers in their 50s and 60s! It originally said something along the lines of looking old and haggard.”

One thing to cause offence by presenting women swimmers in a way their male counterparts would never expect to be presented (those still not convinced might imagine themselves reading an article on the federation website about Adam Peaty’s post-training cosmetics regime, how he wears and adjusts what Ryan Lochte once referred to his banana hammock, marvel at his ‘tips for boys of a certain size’ and so forth … no, not going to happen, is it, swimming office central?).

Social media response shows that some women Masters would have liked to see the 2017 article removed altogether by an organisation that not only says that it values highly “equality issues” but most recently found itself awarded the Advanced level of Equality Standard by the five sports councils (Sport England, UK Sport, Sport Wales, Sport Scotland and Sport Northern Ireland) of Britain, through the Sports Council Equality Group. The status is granted for “commitment to equality, diversity and inclusion”.

Put the offence caused together with other questionable moments in sport and the sport councils’ award and legitimate questions of good governance stretch to issues of self-awareness and culture, some swimmers believe.

MALE DOMINATION IN THE WORLD OF BLAZERS

The ‘glamour’ articles remind us of the extent to which gender inequality is still rife in the global pool, questionable culture flowing from the very top of the Olympic tree.

In 2014, when the International Olympic Committee launched its ‘Olympic Agenda 2020’ gender equality plan, the stated aim was “to achieve the goal of female athletes representing 50 per cent of the athletes taking part in the Olympic Games.”

At the time, I asked ‘is that it, then?’ Was that really what gender equality was to mean: 50/50 participation?

Apparently so, if FINA, the international swim federation, is to be held up as the Olympic model. Consider the drop: put all the leaders and commissions and committees of FINA together in a room and fewer than a fifth off the folk are women. Of the 21 main committees, seven include no women at all, 12 include no more than 1 woman (there are now two women on the ruling bureau of more than 30 men including honorary all-male positions) and just one group has an even number of men and women.

Guess which one? The athletes’ commission. One rule for them, another for us, so to speak (and even then we are looking at a committee stacked high with tokenism because every member is chosen not by athletes to represent their interests but by the blazers of FINA and the national-federation delegates who form part of the circus and culture of the international governing body). There is just one group with more men than women: 16-1 in the realm no longer called ‘synchro’ after a top table made up mostly (by far) of men thought it would be wise to rename the sport “artistic swimming” even in the face of widespread scoffing and protest from … synchro swimmers whose make-up, sequins and glamour have often overshadowed their hard work and athleticism down the years.

LESSONS FROM LONDON 2016

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Swimmers queue to enter the pool complex in chaotic conditions at London 2016, described as “the worst -organized Masters event ever”. Many missed their races.

Questions about the nature of “equality” stretch to how men have treated women and how they have treated women differently to men, too. And here we come then to the London 2016 Masters event, where the failure of organisers to plan for the large numbers of entries despite repeated warnings from Masters swimmers meant that both the Olympic competition pool and the pool used at the Olympics for warm up/down, vastly inferior to the main Olympic arena, had to be used for the competition. Organisers told athletes that they would do their best to make sure that as many swimmers as possible got to race at least once in the Olympic pool proper. As it turned out, the vast bulk of women’s races were held in the warm-up pool, the majority of men’s races in the Olympic pool proper. This was just one of many problems at the event: “fiasco”, “shambles” and the “worst-organised Masters event ever” are among the more polite descriptions that appeared in the post-event survey undertaken by YouGov at the instigation of swimmers, many of whom ascribed the failure of the event to a culture of arrogance and contempt in the federations. (Overall the organisation of the event was rated 3 out of 10 by GB swimmers with only a touch over 20% rating it as successful.)

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London 2016 Masters pool – for the lucky ones (mainly the men). Photo courtesy of SwimVortex.

In a subsequent settlement with angry swimmers, British Swimming stated that “British Swimming is committed to ensure that Equality and Diversity is at the heart of British Swimming’s operations and considers equal treatment as one of the cornerstones of its Equality and Diversity policy. The data available from the Championships will be analysed, and we will use it to continue to strive to achieve our objective of equal treatment.”

And so what has been done?

Fast-forward to the next European Masters event held this year in Kranj, Slovenia, and, despite the lessons of London just two years previously, women’s races were staged early each morning on all days of the event barring one, while the men got a lie in and a comfortable schedule.

The problem is not only that women got the short straw, say critics, it is that when athletes attempt to raise such issues, at domestic and international level, their concerns go unheeded. The athlete is simply not listened to, not even when it comes to men and women in their 20s through to their 90s. As one woman (a multiple gold medallist) put it after the Kranj event: “I was disappointed to see that we were still being discriminated against in Kranj and also that discrimination of disability was evident, too, in that no start flash was available for a deaf swimmer”, while Christine Goodair, a veteran of numerous international events, asked “Why were the women’s races always first when it is normal to have men first one day and women next? How disappointing that LEN have not learnt from London.”

GNS 2013 Windermere

Professor Sue Arrowsmith: “wasting our time” trying to get British Swimming to take up equality issues

And British Swimming’s position? After a whole year of ignoring requests to follow through on its post-London promise, with the advent of new CEO, Jack Buckner, the federation has finally undertaken to consider equality in its own future events, say Masters. However, they also say that, despite blaming LEN (the European federation) for the London debacle, British Swimming refused to engage with the female swimmers who signed the settlement and with others swimmers who want action on the European level, insisting that it could only talk to these swimmers’ “representatives” – that is, the “representatives” who were mainly appointed by the swimming federations themselves.

In January Swim England became the first federation to allow Masters to choose their own representative – and the English Masters regions and Working Group promptly elected Jim Boucher. He, equally promptly, took up the long overdue equality issue on their behalf, only to face a wall of obstruction. This included the Chair of the “representative” Home Countries Masters Group, Verity Dobbie – who shortly before had been invited by British Swimming to join them on a luxury trip to the FINA Congress in Budapest – failing to respond for four months to his repeated requests for discussions, and, most recently simply ignoring his final proposal for resolving the issue, according to Masters swimmers and representatives.

Meanwhile, British Swimming stands accused of refusing to consider a paper from English Masters, produced after extensive consultations, which includes proposals for British Swimming to take the issue forward with LEN. British Swimming claims that the paper must first be endorsed by the Home Countries Group – while Ms Dobbie has insisted that the Group has no power to deal with the matter other than to send the paper to British Swimming to look at (which it has done). Two months on, an email to Mr Buckner and Ms Dobbie to clarify this apparent contradiction has met with silence from both.

According to Masters swimmer and Law Professor Sue Arrowsmith (also an Expert to the International Partnership against Corruption in Sport, of which UK Sport is one of the leading partners, along with the IOC, UN, OECD and Council of Europe, and who negotiated the agreement after the Europeans): “After two years of wading through mud to get British Swimming to take this seriously it is clear that we are wasting our time and that real concern with equality issues – rather than box-ticking to get the bit of paper – is still a long way off.”

She added: “It is disappointing that UK Sport, which was aware of the legal settlement and the complaints that it was not followed through, has not bothered in its equality standards process to check on developments with the female swimmers involved in the settlement”.

STRUGGLE TO HAVE OPEN DEBATE HEARD

Just as Swim England was posting its ‘Glamour’ article in 2017, others events were also in the way to causing offence. A planned presentation/discussion at the Swim England Masters swimmers Conference by Professor Arrowsmith that discussed governance issues in swimming, include equality, that had taken several weeks to write and prepare, was pulled by Swim England at 48 hours’ notice. Verity Dobbie – who had originally put the talk on the agenda – explained in an email that this was because the paper and presentation “would likely be viewed as being highly critical of the organisations…”, and decided to cover the subject in her own talk instead.

Things went from bad to worse and in an official complaint no-one involved will comment on until judgment is given, after Chris Bostock, then Chair of the Swim England Sports Board, responded at the conference to questions from angry delegates about why the planned presentation had been cancelled, delegates of both genders subsequently submitted complaints of bullying and discriminatory behaviour against Mr. Bostock. In the end, following the furore on the day, Professor Arrowsmith was allowed to talk for just 10 minutes, as a substitute for the 90 minute session on governance that was originally scheduled.

Ms. Dobbie declined to answer questions on the grounds that she is party to complaint procedures still active.

A TROUBLING HISTORIC BACKDROP

All of the above is unfolding in a nation that is likely to be among the better part of FINA’s 209 member states when it comes to dealing with gender equality issues and inclusion of women and all athletes in general in the discussion of good governance and practice and its implementation.

Look back down the years and swimming must not only contemplate what it was like for Kellerman, Durack, Williams and Co in a man’s world but what it was like for sex-abuse victims and others such as those systematically doped – and what life has been like since without a scintilla of action from global and even domestic sports authorities when it came to even a single outcome being changed from the days of the GDR through the China Crisis of the 1990s and right up to today and history book heavy on rogue results.

There has been a woeful turning-a-blind-eye response from officialdom on many of the issues raised above and more – and that is why all attempts by communities of people in swimming raising a red flag, such as those being raised by women Masters, must be welcomed not shunned, say critics.

At global level, as the International Swimming League prepares to provide an alternative professional offer for swimmers, complete with a 50% share of the revenue they generate as well as union representation that will make it impossible for governors to ignore them, FINA is just starting to wake up to what it means to have failed to fulfil its core duty of care to athletes, women in particular.

As Bob Marley put it when recommending No Woman, No Cry: “In this bright future you can’t forget your past.”

British Swimming says that it is working on answering the questions put to it more than two weeks ago on the issues raised in this article but has not yet found the time to respond. Should it do so, replies will be added to this file (and the update noted, with a timeline reference).