Monday, July 23, 2012

Shut Up, Nat!

This morning, the ABC’s Virginia Trioli entered the debate about female athletes carrying the Australian Flag at the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games. Tweeting as @LaTrioli, she said,

“Extraordinary how so many refuse to acknowledge that only three female flag bearers in Australian Olympic history represents bias. Do they have daughters, sisters? And if the situation was reversed – only three blokes in all of Olympic history would they think the same?”
It’s a touchy subject, brought to boiling point by Olympic Beach Volleyball player Natalie Cook, who has challenged the AOC to select a female flag bearer because there hasn’t been one for twenty years. In a stunning display of gender discrimination disguised as a plea for equality, Ms Cook has made herself look petty, self-serving and ignorant.

Like Ms Trioli, Natalie Cook is trying to equate feminism with statistical equality, regardless of historical or Olympic context. I’m disappointed in both of these women, highly successful, high profile, strong female role models, for missing the point so completely.

Feminism is not a commodity. It can’t be traded or counted or sold, and shouldn’t be used as a means of blackmail, which is what Ms Cook is trying to do with her threat to sit out the Opening Ceremony if a woman is not chosen as flag bearer. This threat has now been retracted, although she is still ‘volunteering’ to be chosen.

Ms Cook’s argument to the AOC seems to be that a woman must be chosen to carry the flag – an enormous honour – because it’s 20 years since the last time a woman carried the flag for Australia.

That’s not reason enough for me. The honour of leading the Australian team into the arena must surely go to the athlete who most deserves the honour. What constitutes ‘most deserving’ is unclear – perhaps it’s number of Olympics attended, or number of medals won, or some other criteria around Olympic ideals or community service. Traditionally, the athlete is chosen by the Chef de Mission. This year, it’s Nick Green, who has been appropriately tight-lipped about the controversy.

Australians have won medals in 25 sports at the Summer Olympic Games. Thirty-nine percent of those medals have been won in Swimming, yet no swimmer has carried the flag since Max Metzker shared the honour in 1980. This year, Leisel Jones will probably become our most successful Olympian ever. Why wouldn’t we choose her to carry the flag for us?

In contrast, equestrian accounts for only 2.5% of our total summer medal haul of 432, and yet of the last 13 Summer Olympics, the Aussie Equestrians have been flag bearers. That’s 23%. Of course there’s a good reason for that: elite athletes don’t have a long period of time in which to compete: gymnasts are rarely competitive past their teens, swimmers and track and field athletes struggle towards their thirties and beyond, but equestrian competitors compete into their sixties.

Ms Trioli’s tweet suggested that the situation would be viewed differently if only three men had been flag bearers in Olympic history. I urge Ms Trioli to consider the historical context. The drive towards equality for women – call it Women’s Lib – occurred during the late 1960s and into the 1970s. Prior to that, it would have been unthinkable for a woman to have been given a team leadership honour ahead of a male. It wouldn’t have happened. For that reason, I wouldn’t even count Olympiads prior to say, 1972, as being in a group where a female flag bearer was considered possible.

That cuts the potential down to ten Summer Games, prior to London 2012. Of those ten Summer Games, sprinters Raylene Boyle and Denise Robertson Boyd, and diver Jenny Donnet have carried the flag. The rest have been men.
Remember also that the twenty year stretch from 1972-1992 was Australia’s dark days in terms of Olympic performance. Even our world-famous swimmers failed to shine; medals were few and far between. Shane Gould was a stand-out in 1972, but attended just the one Olympic Games. I have no doubt that should have been offered the honour of carrying the flag in 1976, had she competed. As it was, in Montreal in 1976, we won only five medals and none of them were gold – and none of them was won by women. 1980 was the Olympic Games with the ‘*’ – the Moscow Games were notable as countries boycotted to protest the USSR’s military action in Afghanistan. Despite the absence of many Australian athletes who chose to boycott the games, along with major competitors like the USA, we won just nine medals. Things were looking better by Los Angeles in 1984, with 24 medals, but only seven medals went to Aussie women. Seoul was a disappointment: only 14 medals for the Aussie team.

These were gloomy times indeed for Australian Olympians: I wonder which female athletes Ms Cook and Ms Trioli thinks should’ve been chosen. Look at the teams, look at the women who performed well, and then retired after just one Olympic appearance. Look at the women who attended four or five or more successive Olympic Games – are there any? Which female Olympic athletes of the past 40 are top of mind? If, for the sake of establishing an artificial gender balance, you had to choose another two female flag bearers, who would you choose – and which of the male flag bearers would you demote?

Natalie Cook, lining up for her fifth Olympic Games, was definitely a contender to be named Australia’s flag bearer for the Opening Ceremony later this week. Despite her backflip this morning (Degree of Difficulty – Infinite) in which she has “offered” to withdraw the protest she was threatening if a man was selected as flag bearer, there’s no way that she can be chosen now. It would appear as though Nick Green had been influenced by her threats. Ms Cook has left the Australians only one way out: they must choose a woman, but not Ms Cook. She has made her own selection impossible.

My money is on Leisel Jones. London 2012 is her 4th Olympics, and she is the first Australian swimmer to be selected to compete at four Olympic Games, and is on track to become Australia’s most successful Olympic swimmer ever.

Update 24 July: ABC's Kelly Higgins-Devine has reminded me that due to the swimming programme starting on the Day 1, swimmers rarely attend the Opening Ceremony, so Leisel is a longshot. With that in mind, consider basketballer Lauren Jackson's record. This will be her 4th Olympics, and she has won three silver medals. She'd be a perfect flag bearer. Alternately, cyclist Anna Meares is another option.

Update 27 July: Chef de Mission Nick Green has announced Lauren Jackson as flag bearer for London 2012. Congratulations to Lauren, a worthy (and humble) winner. Congrats also to Nick Green for making a perfect diplomatic choice.

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