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Pitch’s Jade Craddock sat down with former Olympic swimmer and author, Sharron Davies, to discuss the silver medalist’s role as an activist in the protection of female athletes’ rights to compete fairly. An advocate for open categories, Davies offers her very personal observations on the ever-evolving sporting landscape now, then and in the future.
So the new book, Unfair Play, looks at the issues within women’s sport not only in the past, but the present and future too, but it starts with your own journey and your experiences in the ‘70s and ‘80s that impacted your own career…
It’s the reason I speak out. I went through that period. I lived and breathed the Seventies and Eighties, a time when the East German athletes were being fed all these terrible steroids through no choice of their own and it had such a massive impact on women’s sport for nearly 20 years. It meant that there was a huge number of young females that did not win the medals they should have.
I love sport, I want everyone to be involved in sport, but the whole point of sport is for it to be fair.
And what does fair look like to you?
We have categories for very obvious reasons. In place to create opportunity across the whole of society, whether that is age categories, weight categories, disability categories, or sex categories – for me, that is the one that creates the most disadvantage. To pretend that it doesn’t is crazy. It’s to effectively turn to women and say, ‘you’re no longer worthy of fair sport’.
How do you feel the experience of racing against the guilty GDR athletes and missing out on medals affected you and perhaps affected your career? What difference would that gold medal in Moscow have made to you, do you think?
I suppose I was one of the lucky ones. As, at the end of the day, I did get on the podium. I beat two East Germans and I picked up a silver medal behind an East German who we all knew then and now was taking drugs. That was the thing that was so frustrating.
My good fortune aside, I have friends that finished fourth behind three East Germans – can you imagine how that feels? The anonymity. Spending the rest of your life as a tailoress, or working for the local council – their whole lives would have been totally different. And those are the people who even got to the Olympics. Being an Olympian is something to be proud of. Imagine if you don’t get to the Olympics because the qualifying times were so ‘artificially’ fast you didn’t make the cut?
Despite the evidence of cheating and the systemic doping that was uncovered in relation to the GDR, the record books still include those athletes involved in the scandal and there’s never been any official medal recognition for athletes such as yourself…
We have so many pieces of evidence, we have confessions, we have documentation, we have court cases, we have the fact that the East Germans won 92 per cent of the women’s medals at the European Championships over that period and by contrast the men won practically nothing. It was so blatant, so obvious, and so frustrating that this went on year after year after year and none of the governing bodies did a single thing to stop it. And they still – all these years later – don’t want to acknowledge it.
You’ve faced personal criticism and backlash for speaking out. Why do you take the role on?
I am a huge believer in sports for all. My whole life has been grounded in sport, trying to get people interested in sport, and keep swimming pools open. I want everyone to be physically active.
But I want sport to be fair. And for young girls, women, masters swimmers – all to be worthy of fair competition.
For schools to run mixed races right across the board, risks not a single little girl coming away from sports day winning a single event. What message is that giving young girls?
If people believe that Michael Phelps was so dominant, purely because of physical advantages – that he was built differently, taller, and with long arms – well, he wasn’t. No taller. No longer limbed. No different, physically, than any of the other men in those Olympic finals. And that’s because if you’re going to be the best male Olympic swimmer, you’re going to be tall, you’re going to have great lung capacity, you’re going to have big hands and feet, because that’s what it’s going to take for you to be the very best. And he beat his rivals – the best in the world – by less than a one per cent margin. By contrast, the women swim – in his event – 11 per cent slower. Not one per cent slower. 11 per cent slower. It’s not a margin, it’s a difference.
This is a subject that’s obviously very close to your heart, was there anything you discovered in findings or research that surprised you?
A lot of it confirmed what I knew, having lived through what I went through. Knowing that, on average, it gave those East Germans a nine per cent improvement, goes way past the margins that make a difference in top-flight sport. I also knew that they could remove that testosterone used from the system, so that they weren’t going to get caught in competition. I know that withdrawing testosterone isn’t going to remove all the physical benefits of using it for decades gives you.
There have been stories of transwomen excelling in biological women’s sport. Is there an argument that transgender athletes vary so greatly in athletic ability that there may be opportunities for competitive and fair competition within biological women’s sport?
For me, you can’t just turn around and say that because this male athlete now identifies as a woman, that it is enough in itself for that person to be allowed to be included and compete. For me, it is unfair to compare what amounts to a previously very average male person, physically, with an elite female athlete. An athlete who is the very best she can possibly be. Someone who has trained for ten years of her life to get where she is, and reach the standard she’s at. To then turn around and say that the ‘gap’ between the two is ‘not very big’, so that’s fine, isn’t an argument. The argument is made by what it takes to get to the respective levels.
We have to compare ‘elite’ with ‘elite’ and ‘mediocre’ with ‘mediocre’. It is bad for sport when a ‘mediocre’ male athlete is beating the very, very best female. The proof of all this is what happened with Lia Thomas. Essentially, an incredibly average male athlete – who would never have made the NCAA Championships in America as a male – came along after experiencing one year of reduced testosterone levels – to beat three Olympic silver medalists. All coming in an event Thomas wasn’t even specialised in. I think that says it all. It’s as likely in men’s sport as Mo Farah turning up at the Olympics and winning the 100 metres.
Do you feel ‘open’ categories will allow everyone a fair chance, and advance inclusion? It’s important for transgender athletes, everyone, to be included isn’t it…
Absolutely. We have to find a way for everybody to be included, and I, as someone committed to sport in the round, 100 per cent believe this. I’ve always pushed for this open category. It’s where we find a space for everyone. Because there needs to be a solution, but that solution needs to be fair. And the solution, as it stands, isn’t to kick women’s sport to the kerb.
Women already have such a small slice of the cake. 11,000 men in this country earn a living from professional sport. Compared to 1,000 women. In America, women get only one per cent of the sponsorship dollar. Of sports prime-time airtime, women get 4 per cent. Being asked to give up our places to compete as well is criminal.
There’s a sense in the book in which there’s more to fair play in sport than just thinking about gender categorisation, that there are fundamental flaws in governance, representation, and the like, which you set out in a 15-point charter, are there easy fixes to the overall issues in sport or is there a need for a complete overhaul?
Sport has been very much run by men and it’s still run by men in most cases. It’s why it has been so easy for them to not be bothered. Into not fighting for women’s sport. World Athletics and World Swimming have applied science, expressing the need to protect the female category in competition. With that ruling, why any sporting body can be dragging their feet, I just don’t understand.
The IOC need a ‘FIFA moment’. Effectively, a light being shone on what amounts to the corruption, and the Old Boys Club mentality. First and foremost, sport needs to be athlete-centric. Athletes, however, have very little say in how their sport is run. I haven’t spoken to a single athlete that doesn’t think this is a ridiculous situation.
It’s often expressed that progress has been made in women’s sport, but having been in sport for such a long time, do you think we’ve seen the progress you’d like or expect?
We haven’t, no! We have in certain sports. Women’s football – yes. Women’s rugby – yes. Women’s cricket too. I would say women’s team sports have moved forward. But these are also sports that are predominantly very, very big in the men’s area too. But in sports that don’t have the same profile, we’re seeing less improvement, less support, less airtime. If you asked the average person in the street, ‘can you please name me the best female swimmer in the country?’ Most of them would have a real problem doing it and yet we have two Olympic gold medalists, and our best female swimmer at the moment, Freya Anderson, has just won six medals at the European Championships. But she’s unknown to but a few people.
You speak in the book of a tidal wave of female athletes who have been excluded from sporting history as a result of losing out unfairly in the ‘80s. If you could correct this, which names would you put back into the sport’s story?
From a domestic perspective, I would include swimmer, Ann Osgerby, who came fourth behind three East Germans. We had a wonderful track athlete called Kathy Smallwood-Cook, probably one of the most underrated track athletes in this country. Never won anything major because of the East Germans. She held the British record for the 400-metres for 30-odd years. A phenomenal track sprinter. She became a school teacher. Internationally, a lady called Enith Brigitha comes to mind. Enith was good enough to be an Olympic champion. From the Netherlands, imagine what she might have done for young black athletes who wanted to swim.
I’m always curious to know whether a retired athlete was happy to compete when they did. I guess that given what you’ve said, your choice is perhaps tricky?
I would have loved to have competed after the Wall came down in Germany. Just after that time. It came down in 1989.
Twelve months out from the next Olympics, what are your hopes for where women’s sport will be by Paris 2024?
I’m hopeful the international cycling federation will protect the female category. I’m hoping once we have the three big sports of cycling, swimming and track on board, that that will become the precedent for all of the other sports.
And finally, given your experiences in Moscow 1980, if you had the chance again, is there anything you could or would have wanted to do differently?
The problem I had was that I was around in an era when we didn’t have a lot of funding. I ended up retiring too early, purely because I’d been training for ten years of my then-young life, six hours a day, and I just needed to be a teenager. And I wasn’t allowed to. I very much regret not being at the 1984 Olympics, particularly with the Eastern Bloc boycott.
But on the whole, I’m very grateful for the opportunities I have had. And as for fighting for female athletes’ right to compete fairly – even bearing in mind the price I feel that I’ve paid personally – then yes, I would do it all again.
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