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Men Must Step Up Their Game To Beat Sexism In Sport

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This week, my friend and fellow Olympic champ boatsman, Adam Kreek, made a mistake that I hope can prove to be a learning experience. While chatting with Ron McLean on CBC television, he expressed his opinion that Eugenie Bouchard may not be committed to winning, evidenced by her selfies, interest in fashion and social media presence.

(You can watch the clip, HERE.)

To add fuel to the fire, when three fellow Olympians whom I admire very much -- Marnie McBean, Chandra Crawford and Annamay Pierse -- expressed concern over Twitter, he emphatically defended his commentary.

I don't think Adam is an expert on tennis. I'm certainly not. So I initially questioned why he was commenting on Eugenie's game at all. But at around the one-minute mark, I realized it wasn't a lesson in tennis Adam needs, it's a lesson in feminism.

After Adam made a few sweeping generalizations about a woman who has gone farther and done more in the sport of tennis than any Canadian woman in generations, he questioned whether or not she actually wants to win. He referenced her enthusiastic desire to talk to the media, her prolificacy on Instagram and her interest in fashion and beauty as evidence that she may have a stronger desire to be a media darling than an Olympic Champion.

This is the kind of tired, regressive, paternalistic, arrogant and sexist commentary that female athletes put up with all the time, and it needs to stop.

He even did a girlish impression of her "trying out different hairstyles," seemingly as evidence that she isn't focused on winning, or that having an interest in fashion, beauty or anything else might detract from one's performance. Since when is having a pastime a bad distraction?

He may as well have asked her, as one Australian reporter did a few years ago, to "give him a twirl."

This is the kind of tired, regressive, paternalistic, arrogant and sexist commentary that female athletes put up with all the time, and it needs to stop.

eugenie bouchard twirl
Eugenie Bouchard during their second round match at the Australian Open, Jan. 21, 2015. A male presenter asked the then-20-year-old to "give us a twirl" during an off-court interview. (Photo: AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

To be crystal clear, I don't know three athletes more capable of defending themselves in a conversation around feminism and sport than Marnie, Chandra and Annamay. Honestly, if you asked me three days ago who I'd want on a panel to discuss women in sport (but you shouldn't, you should ask a woman), those three would tie for the gold. So I want to make it abundantly clear that I am not sticking up for them or defending women. They don't need my help.

However, I don't think the burden of defence rests solely on the capable shoulders of my female teammates. If men don't call out men when we are being sexist, then we are not a part of the solution, and the problem persists. So here I am, calling out my friend, Adam Kreek. Adam, you were sexist on television last night.

Feminism isn't for females. It's for everyone. Good men should feel comfortable challenging each other's prejudices, and accept criticism when those prejudices get the better of us or when we make a mistake.

It's never been more abundantly clear that Canadian female athletes are incredible. Penny Oleksiak has already won four Olympic medals and she isn't even old enough to drive a car by herself. She's strong, performs under an immense amount of pressure, she's an amazing team player and demonstrates the sportsmanship, media savvy and poise of someone twice her age.

Yet, sadly, the headline on the cover of the Toronto Sun this week was "Pretty Penny." Perhaps I'm holding the Sun to an unrealistic standard of journalistic integrity, and I get that alliteration sells newspapers, but COME ON. She's the best swimmer of her generation, maybe ever, and the first Olympic champion ever born in the 2000s, and the paper leads with something referencing her appearance? We can do better.

You see, no journalist has ever asked me if I've been doing something different with my hair lately (despite the fact that I AM, thanks for noticing). Nobody has ever asked me to twirl in the mixed zone. I've never read that I "put on a little too much weight" in the off-season, even when I have, and I haven't heard of one male athlete that didn't perform well because they spend too much time on social media. But I can confirm that a lot of us waste plenty of time staring at our phones.

I'll concede that some part of the argument I hear may be a generational one, primarily from male athletes and coaches whose career didn't coincide with smartphones, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat -- I've heard it over and over: "she's too obsessed with her social media." It may be less maddening if it was a gender-neutral conversation, but it still wouldn't make it alright.

Dispense with the defence, check your male privilege at the door, say sorry and walk through it enlightened, having embraced a learning opportunity.

You don't have to understand social media to accept that it's a bigger part of someone else's identity and ego than it may be of your own. Telling someone to "put down their phone and concentrate on training" is akin to telling someone else to stop reading books, playing cards or sending love letters. I think if athletes are accustomed to being on social media in their day to day, giving it up around race time would be more of a distraction than a tool for focus.

For a group of sports fans that have really never known a homegrown singles tennis champion, Canadians act as though Eugenie should be winning every time she shows up to play. When she was runner up at Wimbledon, it was widely considered a failure by Canadian fans. I'm sorry, everyone -- she was second IN THE WORLD. That's number two out of about seven billion. How is that anything short of amazing? I am inspired by Eugenie, and I think she's awesome.

I also think that Genie, Marnie, Annamay, Chandra and all female athletes are entitled to an apology from Adam. I don't think Adam is a sexist man, but I recognize that we all grew up in an inherently sexist world, and that we carry around biases and stereotypes that play into a recurrently sexist rhetoric. When someone points out that you've been a little ignorant, much less three leaders of our female Olympic network, you dispense with the defence, check your male privilege at the door, say sorry and walk through it enlightened, having embraced a learning opportunity.

He may not be prepared to admit that he was wrong, which is fine, because that's not the point of an apology. You apologize when you've offended somebody, whether you agree with them or not. At least, that's what my momma taught me.

This blog originally appeared on VanKayak.com.

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