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Olympism in Action Forum

#UnitedBy equality - Nancy Hogshead-Makar

A three-time Olympic gold medallist at Los Angeles 1984, former US swimmer Nancy Hogshead-Makar has since devoted her considerable energies to gender equality in sport and the empowerment of athletes. She has championed those causes as a lawyer, author, professor, public speaker, opinion leader and the founder and CEO of Champion Women, a non-profit advocacy organisation for girls and women in sport. 


In the run-up to the Olympism in Action Forum in Buenos Aires (5-6 October 2018), we looked at groups and individuals who, inspired by the power of sport to contribute to a better world, have used their initiative to organise projects and programmes to effect change at all levels.

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A recipient of the IOC Women and Sport Award for the Americas in 2014, in recognition of her outstanding contribution to the development, encouragement and reinforcement of women’s participation in sport, Hogshead-Makar is an inspirational and hugely influential figure, who continues to work tirelessly in tackling harassment, abuse and discrimination, and giving women the opportunities and support they deserve.

Hogshead-Makar’s unshakeable belief in equality took shape in her teenage years, when her prodigious ability and physical prowess led to her beating the male athletes on her swim team, an outcome her coaches did not always appreciate.

Taking up the story, she says: “I was non-gender-conforming at the time. I was very muscular and got a very hard time for it. When I was only 15, my coach yelled at a guy saying, ‘How could you let a girl beat you in practice?’ I pulled him [the coach] aside and said, ‘Look, you’re making life miserable for both of us. I have to be their team-mate. You can’t put their sense of self on the line. They’re going to resent me.’ To his credit, he never said it again.”

Her interest in gender issues and equality led to her embarking on a degree in Political Science and Women’s Studies at Duke University in 1980, while her subsequent move into advocacy came about thanks to a talk she and other Olympians received from former Olympic swimmer Donna de Varona at Los Angeles 1984. The subject of that talk was Title IX, a 1972 federal law guaranteeing women the same opportunities as men in US collegiate sports. Hogshead-Makar remembers it well: “Donna said, ‘You’re about to become famous. What are you going to do with it?’ And I would say the same thing today to every Olympian out there.”

Hogshead-Makar’s three golds in Los Angeles came in the 100m freestyle (a title she shared with compatriot Carrie Steinseifer in the first tie in Olympic swimming history), the 4x100m freestyle and the 4x100m medley, with a silver medal also coming her way in the 200m medley.

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She promptly retired from swimming, however, and, acting on De Varona’s inspirational words, began interning at the non-profit charity Women’s Sports Foundation (WSF). Tackling issues such as coach-on-athlete abuse and the enforcement of Title IX, she would remain at the WSF in various capacities through to 2014, by which time she had graduated to the position of senior director of advocacy.

It was in 2014 that the crusading changemaker founded Champion Women, which offers participation opportunities in sport and works on sexual harassment, abuse and violence cases, as well as gender discrimination, coaching discrimination, and pregnancy discrimination cases and issues.

The advocacy organisation was one of many supporters of the Protecting Young Victims from Sexual Abuse and Safe Sport Authorisation Act, a piece of legislation for which Hogshead-Makar had been actively campaigning for years. Introduced in January 2018, it makes everyone in the Olympic Movement in the USA a mandatory reporter of abuse, and offers athletes of all ages long-awaited protection.

“I started Champion Women because I didn’t want to have my career just be about private practice and suing schools,” she explains. “I wanted to find areas where we can move the needle. We have lawsuits and legal expertise, but there are other ways of bringing about change, like working with state attorneys general to try to get them to pressure schools to add more opportunities for women in sport, or getting Olympic champions to speak to women’s alumni associations.”

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Her unstinting and longstanding commitment to women’s issues led to her receiving IOC recognition in the shape of the 2014 Women and Sport Award for the Americas, an accolade that means a great deal to her: “It’s by far the most prestigious award that I’ve won. I’m in 13 halls of fame and I’ve got an honorary doctorate, but it’s the one that I cherish the most. And it’s certainly the heaviest award too.

“It’s always a risky proposition to be an advocate who’s challenging the status quo, and to be able to do that knowing that you’ve already been recognised by your peers makes all the difference. I’m really appreciative of the IOC giving me that award and allowing me to do a lot more of what I was already doing.”

Hogshead-Makar is living proof of the power that policy can have in protecting women and also ensuring they have the same access to sport as men. Without Title IX, for example, she would not have been granted the same opportunities as her male colleagues. “It linked our sport system and our education system together,” she explains. “So when the law says women get equal educational opportunities, that applies to athletics as well. I was a huge beneficiary of that, and it came in just in time for me; if I’d been two years older, I would not have gotten a college scholarship. So I wanted to give something back for that.”

It’s always a risky proposition to be an advocate who’s challenging the status quo, and to be able to do that knowing that you’ve already been recognised by your peers makes all the difference. Nancy Hogshead-Makar

The Olympian knows only too well what victims of abuse have to endure. She is one herself, having been raped during her second year at Duke University, two-and-a-half years before she achieved global acclaim at Los Angeles 1984.

Having recovered from the ordeal and gone on to achieve her goals in life, she is keen to tell other survivors of abuse that they can do the same: “As a 56-year-old now, I want young women to know that what you think just happened to you and how you think it’s going to affect the rest of your life… you really can still do everything that you wanted to do, even though you feel terrible right now, you can’t sleep, and you’re not yourself.”

As well as the support of others, sport played a crucial part in her recovery. When she returned to the pool after a year away from swimming, she found the experience cathartic: “Trauma experts say very hard physical exercise helps you recover, and also being able to have a safe place to be angry was important for me. I used that anger to actually go faster, and it was like a source of energy for me. I’d go underwater and relive the experience but have a different ending. I did that for a year and a half, and it was very healing.

“Sport gave me my sense of self back. It gave me the sense that I was controlling my destiny, not the rapist. Around the world people say that playing sport gives them a certain sense of self-confidence and mastery over their own body. As a rape victim, being able to do that was very important to my own recovery.”  

The ordeal Hogshead-Makar went through has also made her realise the importance of speaking out about abuse and breaking taboos: “One of the reasons I talk about it is because I didn’t have any role models of women who went on to do great things afterwards, and I looked hard for them.”

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As she goes on to explain, that is no longer the case. The sexual abuse case brought against former USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar saw many gymnasts come forward to testify against him, among them three-time Olympic champion Aly Raisman. Praising their part in his conviction, Hogshead-Makar says: “The shame of having been abused is now dissipating. It used to be that that shame kept victims quiet. They felt that it diminished them as a person, but to have Aly Raisman get up there and talk… she took that away. Those women used their Olympic status and everything they got out of sports, and I’m so impressed with them.”

Discussing the power of sport and Olympism to heal, empower, challenge the status quo, and act as a catalyst for social change, Hogshead-Makar adds: “I hold the Olympic Movement to very high standards because I think it can make this enormous change. To have an Olympic champion be able to talk about being raped or sexually assaulted or sexually abused, and to have them not lose any status for coming forward – I think that gives hope to women who are living in other countries where they’re told that they need to marry that person that just raped them. I think that the ramifications for that are worldwide. It gives women actual power; it means they have the authority, the ability, to tell people and to be believed.”

Such issues are central to the inaugural Olympism in Action Forum in Buenos Aires on 5 and 6 October, where the winners of the 2018 IOC Women and Sport Awards will be announced. A challenging and thought-provoking conversation around sport, the Olympism in Action Forum will feature a Women in Sport panel discussion and a session entitled “Prevention of Harassment & Abuse in Sport”.

A firm believer in the role played by athletes in making the goals of the Forum a reality, Hogshead-Makar also has a very clear idea of the event’s core values and of what Olympism, as a whole, means to her: “It’s recognising the highest ideals in ourselves and living by them. There’s a certain integrity with the Olympic Movement, with the Olympic Games and with being an Olympic athlete: you have to show up for training, you have to be on time, and you have to give it your all. And there’s a certain pride and nobility that comes along with having that integrity. It’s a celebration of the very best that humanity has to offer.”

And in revealing what she is #UnitedBy, the triple Olympic champion is equally forthright: “Using sport as a vehicle for social change, including women’s full participation in sport. We’ve seen every country in the world send at least one woman to the Olympic Games at one point or other. Some 46 per cent of all the athletes who compete in the Olympic Games are female, but where we’re still not seeing a lot of change is at administrative level, the NOCs, the athlete representatives, and we need to make sure that in all the coaching positions we have women at all those levels.”

Having selflessly devoted her post-Olympic career to supporting and campaigning for others, and in her awareness that much still needs to be done, the indefatigable Hogshead-Makar has a very clear message for her fellow athletes: “You are an Olympian. I don’t care if you win or not: you’re an Olympian. That’s a position of power and you can do something with that and you can make that mean something. And I recommend that you do.”

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