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Women in sport to be a central theme in 2010 bid

To the untrained eye the torch-lighting ceremony at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia was just another ornate national pageant, albeit a particularly spectacular one.

To the untrained eye the torch-lighting ceremony at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia was just another ornate national pageant, albeit a particularly spectacular one.

For Marion Lay, the chair of the Vancouver-Whistler 2010 Bid Corporation and a veteran of two Olympics, it was a defining moment in the history of the games – the last seven torch-bearers were women, and the honour of lighting the main torch went to Australian runner Cathy Freeman.

"It was quite an emotional moment for me, beyond my wildest dreams," said Lay, who was in Whistler on May 30 to hold another 2010 fireside chat at the Tantalus Lodge. She recently received a Women and Sport trophy for North America from the International Olympic Committee for her contribution to the advancement of women in sport in Canada and around the world.

"Even the Australian Olympic officials didn’t know how it would go in the media, there was some concern about backlash in the media. One Olympic organizer told me he was waiting for the papers the next day with his bags packed."

The opening ceremony received nothing but praise, and Lay felt that the status of women in the Olympics had reached a new high – a high she is determined to build on when the Bid Corporation formally announces it’s intention to bid on the 2010 Winter Olympics.

"The challenge at hand is to put together a list of dreams and legacies that we want to see happen when putting together our bid – it’s our bid, and we can make it anything we want," said Lay.

"The IOC will give us 22 questions, and we are allowed to answer one page for each. There will be questions about finances, and facilities, and transportation. The winter sports need to be in there, and the legacies we’re going to leave this province and Canada need to be in there.

"The one legacy I would like to see is more involvement by women at every level, more athletes, more coaches, more people in the organization."

The Sydney Games marked the 100 th anniversary of the participation of women in the Olympics, and by many standards it was a breakthrough for women in sports.

More than 20 new women’s events were added to the games, including women’s pole vault, modern pentathlon, water polo, and weight lifting. Two completely new sports, Taekwondo and the Triathlon, were open to both men and women.

The Australian Institute of Sport also took the lead in funding by bringing in a new pay scale that matches the level of team funding to their level of success. Some men’s sports lost funding in this new formula, while funding for women’s sports overall quadrupled.

"The only place that they (Sydney Olympic Organizers) didn’t look at women in sport was within their organizing committees – there were no paid positions for women" said Lay.

Lay recognizes that the board of directors for the 2010 bid are predominantly male at this stage, with no quotas set for women or minorities. Although every one of the representatives is qualified, Lay feels there should eventually be more equity on the board and within the corporation.

"Right now on our board we don’t have that equity," said Lay. "We invited sporting organizations and stakeholders to put names forward, and wound up with a committee that’s mostly male. That will change."

After her career as an Olympian ended with a bronze medal in the 4x100 freestyle in 1968, Lay struggled to earn recognition and respect as a female swim coach at a club and, later, an elite level. She blamed her difficulty on a "culture" within the sport that favoured men in coaching and administrative roles for both male and female teams.

While she was training, she noticed that the women’s synchronized swimming team in the pool next door had female coaches. The same culture that kept women back in swimming did not exist in synchronized swimming, and the team still managed to be successful.

"That was an eye-opener for me," said Lay, who hung in there and eventually coached an athlete to the Olympics. She met opposition and had to deal with a lot of confrontation and criticism every step of the way.

"Where I was coming from, most athletes would have said that you wouldn’t want a woman coach. I had coaches actually try to recruit my athletes from me, telling them that ‘Marion can’t take you to the level I can take you’. They told them they could get them monthly stipends. Mostly I think they were worried because I was becoming a good coach."

Lay took her success and the lessons she learned as an athlete and a coach and began to make inroads for women at the administrative and organizational level.

As an advisor to both the federal and provincial governments, she managed Sport Canada’s women’s programs, and helped to found the Canadian Association for the Advancement of Women in Sport and Physical Activity (CAAWS). In addition to her role as bid chair, Lay is the director of programs for "Promotion Plus", a B.C. organization that supports girls and women in sport that she also founded.

While there are more women at every level of sports, the men-only culture was slow to change.

In 1996, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) held their first World Conference on Women and Sport and the IOC adopted a set of resolutions to increase the visibility of women in sports at the national and international level. By Dec. 31 of 2000, the IOC called on every international sports federation, national Olympic committees, national sports federations to meet a goal of 10 per cent representation by women. At the second conference in March of 2000, the conference reaffirmed the goals and expanded expectations to 20 per cent.

"While 10 per cent or 20 per cent may seem like a low number for Canadians – we generally think of ourselves as quite liberal and quite progressive – when the resolution was announced in 1996, women only held 15 per cent of these positions," said Lay.

The numbers have increased dramatically since that point says Lay, and although there is still a lot of work to do, at this point Canada can be seen as a leader in promoting women in sport – win or lose, the 2010 bid could strengthen this position while building permanent sport legacies for B.C. and Canada.

Other topics covered at the fireside chat included the importance of bidding and Toronto’s 2008 bid.

"One of the pleas Istanbul (Turkey) made to the bid committee was to be short-listed because the bid itself is worth the effort," said Lay. "It increases tourism and your profile internationally, and creates more funding for sports."

While the Vancouver Whistler Bid Corporation was uncertain whether there would even be a 2010 bid if Toronto was successful in its bid to host the 2000 Summer Olympics, Lay believes that it’s possible that Canada could win and host both Games as the IOC membership restructures to include more athletes and delegates from international sports federations – politics could take back seat to sports considerations, and athletes could easily back both bids on their technical merits.

"The Toronto facilities will be incredible," said Lay. Most of the events are going to happen in one area, the transportation is good, the housing is good. Whistler has the number three men’s downhill in the world and we will have first class Nordic facilities in the Callaghan (Valley). In Vancouver, GM place is one of the top facilities of its kind in the world. Either bid would be hard for an athlete to turn down."

Although it will be up to the Canadian Olympic Association (COA) to decide whether to pursue both bids, Lay feels that Canada is up to the task.