Katherine Grainger – Going for Gold
International Women’s Day Lecture
McEwan Hall, Edinburgh, 8 March 2014
Working in Edinburgh every day I think we become immune to the fantastic architecture all around us and so to be able to appreciate one of the grandest buildings in the city and hear from a four time Olympic medal winner seemed too good an opportunity to miss.
This was the fifth University of Edinburgh International Women’s Day (IWD) Lecture. The IWD theme for 2014 is Inspiring Change and in recognition of this theme the topic of the University’s lecture was Women in Sport – Going for Gold.
The speakers were to be: Shona Robison, MSP, Minister for Commonwealth Games and Sport, who would be giving the opening address; Katherine Grainger CBE, Britain’s most successful female rower and the only female athlete to gain medals in four consecutive Olympic Games; and Louise Martin CBE, Vice Chair of the Commonwealth Games Organising Committee and Chair of sportscotland.
Shona Robison was MSP for the North East from 1999-2003 and elected MSP for Dundee East in 2003. She was Shadow Minister for Health and Social Justice and a member of the Scottish Parliament’s Health Committee before being appointed Minister for Public Health in the Scottish Government formed after the May 2007 election. She was re-elected at the 2011 election and appointed to her present Ministerial position. In recent times she has also taken on the portfolio for equality.
Doctor (we’ll come back to this later) Katherine Grainger took up rowing at Edinburgh University in 1993 and became President of the Edinburgh University Boat Club in 1996. She was elected the Edinburgh University Sport Union’s female athlete of the year in 1995/96 and 1996/97 and was inducted into the University Sports Hall of Fame in 2008. She was elected as Honorary President of the Scottish Amateur Rowing Association in 2005 and a Steward of Henley Royal Regatta in 2008, only the third rower to be selected while still competing. In 2012 Katherine won the Olympic Gold alongside Anna Watkins in the double sculls. Katherine was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for services to rowing which was announced in the 2013 New Year’s Honours. She was elected to the British Olympic Association’s Athlete Commission and was a Champion for the 2018 Glasgow bid to host the Youth Olympic Games.
Louise Martin CBE was elected the Honorary Secretary of the Commonwealth Games Federation for a third time in 2007 and was awarded the CBE for services to the Commonwealth Games in 2003. She competed in the 1962 Commonwealth Games in Australia, making the swimming finals in the 100m and 200m backstroke. In 2007, Louise led Scotland’s successful bid to bring the 2014 Commonwealth Games to Glasgow and is now Vice Chair of the Organising Committee. The following year, she was appointed Chair of sportscotland.
The aim of the lecture was to look at barriers and challenges in becoming or aspiring to become a successful sportswoman, so a lot of audience was made up of youngsters and students with an interest in sports, particularly rowing.
After a short introduction from the University’s Vice Principal, Shona Robison wished everyone a Happy International Women’s Day. She also talked about there being only 137 days to the start of the Commonwealth Games – which she described as scary, but also good. She talked about the importance of girls and young women firstly getting active through sport, but then keeping active into their teens and early twenties. She then introduced Katherine Grainger.
When Katherine came to the podium she took great delight in reminding Shona that it was “Doctor “ Katherine Grainger, remarking that “once you start collecting titles it’s very difficult to stop!” Katherine told the audience she was pleased to be back in Edinburgh and that we should consider this as “a bit of a chat” not a lecture. She told us she spoke to her mum about what she was going to be doing, to which her mum’s response was “should we even have to have a day?” or should it be a day to acknowledge what has been achieved so far, but also remembering there’s still so much to do. She talked about the strong women she had had in her family growing up – e.g. her grandmother who volunteered for most of her life, and took homemade food to the prisoners who had been incarcerated by her husband, who was in the police force.
She told us that she started rowing by accident when she began at University. Her first female role model was the first female captain of the Boat Club, who one day decided that she wouldn’t wait for people who were late for the minibus to take them through to Glasgow for a competition and ended up with only a handful of rowers on the bus.
She talked about her first Olympics in Sydney when “some guy called Steve” was getting all the plaudits and how inspiring it was to see all of the Australian female Olympic Champions carrying the torch before Kathy Freeman lit the urn. That was the first silver medal that Katherine won, and she was surprised to hear from people that they “didn’t know women could row!”
Katherine rounded off her “chat” by talking about how far women’s sport had come in the last decade and that Britain and British girls and young women have become much more ambitious. She also talked about sitting in the very room in which the lecture was taking place, sitting her law exams, and realising how privileged she was to be able to have the education she had had and the sporting opportunities she had taken up. This is not something that happens across the globe and Katherine made the point that sport is a safe place to start to change things which can then be transferred to other outlets. She added that, yes, we should celebrate how far we’d all come but also be motivated to care to make other changes.
She then shared a video – a reminder of all the achievements made at London 2012 but asked the audience to imagine what that would have been like if no women had been there. An inspiring and engaging “chat” from an inspiring and engaging lady.
Katherine handed the baton over to Louise Martin, who commented “how on earth do I follow Katherine Grainger”. Louise talked about her life after her swimming – she retired at the age of 21, and then got back into the sporting world when her daughter took up gymnastics. She talked about how proud she was to have led the bid for the Commonwealth Games to come to Glasgow and the moment before the announcement was made was one of the longest of her life. She said she is passionate about sport and that the impact of role models couldn’t be underestimated.
Louise highlighted how much was still to be done around ensuring that women have the opportunity to lead in sport – only a quarter of Scottish sports governing bodies are led by women, and only 38% of the boards are made up of women. However, she added that it wasn’t just about making up the numbers, but about having the best person in the job, and that women just needed more self belief.
She is excited about the Baton Relay coming to Scotland in June and July, having been with the relay in other parts of the Commonwealth and how everyone has been getting involved in it. She added that the Glasgow Commonwealth Games was more than just the 2 weeks in July, that it was about securing a lasting legacy for the city of Glasgow and that she believed that sport had the power to change lives.
The discussion was then opened up to the audience for a Q&A session. There was a question about whether the panel felt that the coaching and refereeing professions were still male dominated. The concession was in the past these areas were dominated by men, but that that was changing, and a lot of women who wanted to be involved in sport, sometimes preferred those types of roles. Katherine added that in rowing it’s still massively male dominated, but that female coaches have a very different style of coaching.
The next question was about compulsory sport and competitive sport in schools. Katherine talked about the pressure on the curriculum to make sure everything was included, but that the benefits of having that compulsory sport should not be underestimated. Shona added that when she first took up post, she had become obsessed with making sure every primary school pupil had at least 2 hours of physical activity every week and that there were at least 2 periods of activity per week in high school. She conceded that this was still a journey that we are all on, but that those figures are now being achieved in over 90% of schools in Scotland. She added that it’s also about ensuring the quality of that sporting activity. She rounded off her answer by assuring the audience that the Scottish Government and sportscotland were on the case in looking at how to ensure competitive sport between schools.
There was a question about equality and diversity and how that transfers through to the public appointments on all types of Boards. Shona talked about work which was being taken forward by the Public Appointments Commissioner to create a pool of people who represent the population more accurately. She also talked about the first woman who has just been appointed to the Board of Scottish Rugby and that the football organisations are proving a bit more challenging. Louise added that sportscotland had interviewed a number of women for the latest round of appointments to that Board, but they hadn’t sold themselves particularly well at interview.
The final question was about the media and how it could be used to highlight more effectively female sport. Katherine talked about the Boat Race and how no-one, either at the BBC or the Universities themselves could understand why it was so popular. Everyone agreed that there was much more coverage now demonstrating a wide and diverse mix of people and that certainly rowing had benefited a great deal from that, as it was no longer seen as a sport only for those who attended private school.
The session finished with Lorraine Waterhouse, Professor of Social Work at the University wishing Katherine well in the London marathon in a few weeks’ time. She may not finish first, but she’s definitely got the drive to complete it.
This was a really interesting session, and even though we had a politician on the panel we managed to stay away from the referendum debate – a welcome change at the moment!
Sad to see so many empty seats, but there was very little publicity for this very worthy event.
One final comment. The event started around ten minutes later than advertised. I’ve no idea why and there was no explanation. I bet men wouldn’t have been late….