Running along the South Bank in London a few years ago, I caught and passed a male runner. He shouted “bitch!” at me as I ran past and tried to sprint to keep up. I can be hot-headed and so while I primarily felt angry and astonished, it was also frightening.
It’s not in my nature to care too much about what other runners around me are doing because the primary person I’m interested in beating has always been myself. I’m competitive, but running is deeply personal for me. The main competition are the numbers on the watch on my wrist.
A few months ago, I caught up to and almost passed another male runner near where I live. Upon seeing me, he stepped in front of me to cut me off and began a sprint which, ironically, was about the same pace as I was running to begin with. He ended up calling me a “bitch” and a “twat” and to “go fuck myself”.
This morning was hot and so I planned a fairly easy run: 3.5km out along the river, 3.5km back. On a narrow stretch I passed a group of 50-somethings walking. I scooted to the side of the slim path and so did they, and I said the usual “sorry, scuse me, cheers” things you say when everyone makes way for each other. I turned around about five minutes later to head home. Before the path widened again, I came across the same group.
“Sorry, excuse me, ” I said again. They didn’t hear me so I had to say it twice. The men turned around and glared at me. “Go slower!” one of them shouted.
And it wouldn’t be so astonishing and maddening if it didn’t keep fucking happening.
The last time a man actually told me to slow down, I was almost six months pregnant and we were in a swimming pool. I had passed him a few times and this appeared to make him very angry. He stopped me in the water and screamed at me, claiming I was “racing up and down!” and ruining his swim. I had literally never swum slower in my life. I was six months pregnant. I was tired and huge and uncomfortable. But I was too fast for him, a man, who wanted a pregnant woman to be slower than him.
I held the New Zealand 200m breaststroke national record for four years. Swimming paid for my education. No, nasty old man. I won’t compromise my already slow, pregnant workout to make it even slower for you, to pad your ego, to make you feel less like a loser.
“Go slower.” An instruction. A demand. A demand made of a younger woman by an older man this morning, to whom she’d been polite twice. “Go slower.” An aggressive demand that encapsulates years of male entitlement and insecurity. “Do this, because I said so. Because I’m insecure. Because I’m an entitled prick and you’re a woman on your own doing something for yourself, that I can’t do. Go slower, because strong athletic women intimidate me. Go slower, because I think I should own the world and you shouldn’t have the right to go for an easy morning run in the world that I should own. Go slower, because I can’t do that and it makes me feel weird. Go slower because I said so.”
Women’s sport is being shat on from a high height right now by people who think we should all go slower. The Women’s World Cup was a painful reminder of how many men are threatened by strong female athletes to the degree that they have to publicly tear down and dismiss every game, every player and every fan. One in eight men apparently believe they could score a point against Serena Williams. About the same ratio of men I come across seem to believe I should acquiesce to their dominance, their superiority, their desire not to be threatened. I am a hobby club runner who was absolutely running “slowly” by my standards when I came across this man but it wasn’t slow enough.
He’d be pleased to know that I was irritated enough for this to turn into 4:30 per km pace for the rest of the run. I’ll think of him for a while, usually at the end of an anaerobic session or a tempo run where it really starts to hurt and I want to stop. I want to ease off, stop the watch, have a break and recollect myself, when the burn really sets in. I’ll think of him when I want to go slower. And I’ll keep on bloody running.
Last summer, the English football team did well in the World Cup in Russia and a lot of people in this country were elated and surprised in equal parts. It was a lot of fun, even as someone who was raised on a steady diet of All Blacks rugby: the weather was hot, the theme song was catchy and England was winning. And then this advertisement surfaced, shared repeatedly on social media
I already knew about the documented rise in domestic violence incidents on days England played football; the research from Lancaster University was widely-reported in 2013. Even a win resulted in increased violence: a 26% rise was found after a win or a draw, and a 38% increase after a loss. The photo above, however, probably did more to drive home the severity of the situation: a St. George’s Cross scrawled on a woman’s face from her own bloody nose was a sobering antidote to the 32C afternoons and gleeful hollering at a laptop showing the games from the cool of a paddling pool. Not all of us are having a good time.
I had been interested in the topics of winning, losing and sportsmanship as a concept for a while before this. In 2017, I took a course through the University of Oxford about ethics, and I wrote my final paper on cheating in amateur athletics and which ethical theories are best suited to countering the phenomenon. Covering both drug abuse and physical cheating (i.e. cutting the course of a race or having a faster athlete compete in your place), the project took me to sad places. Some of the saddest involved people who had been caught cheating on a rather grand scale, only to discover how far they’d strayed not only from honest participation, but from happiness and true self-satisfaction altogether.
The initial motivations people have for cheating differ but those who come clean often display bafflement that they allowed themselves to descend into outright deceit. Analysing and documenting distance running cheats since May 2015, Derek Murphy of marathoninvestigation.com (a venture that has raised ethical questions of its own) published an anonymised interview with a woman he discovered to have cheated in multiple marathons by having her faster husband run with her bib and timing chip. Her reasons for cheating were characterised by a search for external validation: according to the interviewee, she stopped competing under her own name because of a negative comment from a contact on social media regarding a slow race result.
Other people double down. A lot of people. Murphy’s site alone is rife with stories of people who’ve become obsessive and threatening upon being exposed. Some of them seem to have cheated for roughly the same reason as the anonymous interviewee (social media recognition; impressing friends and family; Instagram likes) but others cheat in attempts to qualify for future events, often the Boston Marathon and other prestigious races like Ironman competitions.
Between the fans who can’t deal with losing such that they beat their family members and the competitors who can’t stand a bad race result and resort to cheating, we have a fundamental problem with how people view winning and losing in sport. The violent eruptions and cheating is on one side. On the other–possibly a misguided effort to control this as well as to protect people’s feelings–we have the desire to eliminate winning and losing as concepts altogether.
It’s pretty well documented that the “everyone gets to win; there are no winners and losers” model is extremely unhelpful, but it exists in sharp contrast to the even more toxic mindset a lot of people bring to sport, sometimes as competitors, often as parents and most commonly as fans, that “losing” is reason for violence, bitterness and terrible behaviour. Both of these constitute bad sportsmanship and in the context of why sport “matters”, learning and applying good sportsmanship is surely one of the only important reasons.
Good sportsmanship is sometimes really difficult. It hurts to lose, or to feel that you have performed badly. It’s frustrating as a fan with no control to watch something you cared about go wrong. But being a good sportsperson shouldn’t necessarily be easy, and we’re failing at it both when we declare that everyone gets a trophy regardless, and when we are so dissatisfied with a loss that we act out in the worst ways. The toxic attitude to competitiveness is uniform when it pops up. It doesn’t differ in its basal nature to hitting your girlfriend because England lost or trashing IKEA because they won.
Put losing into perspective: I’m a fairly decent amateur runner for a 35 year old woman. I have a 19 minute 5k, a 40 minute 10k and an unofficial 1:38 half marathon. I have only won one running race in my life, ever, and I’m unlikely to win many more unless I deliberately avoid events where women much faster than me are likely to enter.
As a child and into my early twenties, I was a swimmer and after a decade of 30 hour training weeks, I was good enough to win some decent races, once or twice. In contrast, the races I’ve swum where I didn’t touch first are countless, dating from my first Auckland Champs aged 10, where I came last. This record of not winning is to be expected in sport. Anyone who consistently wins at every level is a household name (Michael Phelps, Katie Ledecky… and even they have been and will be beaten, albeit irregularly). Team sports differ from individual ones in that there are often only two “competitors” in a match, and it could be argued that your chances of winning are higher than in a running race with hundreds or thousands of other athletes. All the same, endless winning streaks simply don’t exist. Ask any All Blacks fan.
When it comes to attitudes towards participating in sport, your choices are not between “win at all costs and trash everything in the process” and “everyone gets a trophy”. There is a world of difference between being disappointed because you didn’t win, and believing that “it’s only the taking part that counts”. Being able to maturely cope both disappointment and success, either from the field of play or the sideline, intrinsically acknowledges that results matter. That concept alone underpins one of the primary reasons why sport matters at all, and the domestic violence stats cast a bright light on how badly we fail at it. So does the cheating. We seem to be caught in a binary trap between pretending none of this matters to us at all, and melting down the moment we suffer even the more minor defeat.
It’s a concept I want to look into further, but last summer was also a positive time. English football showed all of us, including its regular supporters and once-every-four-years opportunists like me, what being good winners and good losers looks like. The thing I liked the most about watching the 2018 football World Cup was Gareth Southgate’s reaction to both beating Colombia and losing to Croatia: he hugged the player who missed the Colombian penalty, and he and his team applauded and Croatians and the crowd after their loss. I want to be more like that as a runner, I can think of times I wish I had been more like that as a swimmer and I hope to be like that as a spectator.
Losing is necessary. In sport, everyone does far more of it than winning. This doesn’t mean that losing should be erased as a concept and that you should only expect mediocrity from yourself or your favourite teams, but we need to be much better at handling it when things don’t go our way.
What you’re watching happen in digital marketing during the last month isn’t just about sexism. It isn’t just about gender politics. It isn’t even wholly about the issues I raised seven years ago in a post that would end up the unfortunate defining political moment of my career in SEO.
When I wrote that post I was angry and I couldn’t understand why asking not to be touched, groped, hit on, emailed inappropriate comments or even assaulted was a controversial request. Equally, I couldn’t understand why hiring and bragging about models, booth babes or even Playmates was gladly accepted by the entire industry, and even celebrated and looked up to as a personal goal. It made no sense to me. Could no one else see what I saw? Looking back, it felt like the actual definition of gaslighting: what you’re seeing isn’t what you’re seeing. It’s in your face but it’s you who’s wrong. I said that but you’re wrong if you heard it. Sit down. Shut up.
I wrote whilst angry, astonished and without the context of the last seven years to make sense of the culture. What’s happened since goes a long way to explaining why that environment existed, what encouraged and protected it and why there’s currently a drastic social shift in online marketing where the norms of that era aren’t resolving well with the modern industry.
It’s also most definitely not about jealous people wanting to be “rockstars”.
When I started working in SEO, the industry was only a few years out of an awkward, illegitimate infancy. My former boss Rand Fishkin had recently appeared in Newsweek talking about the fledgling practice. At the time, few people understood what SEO was, how it worked or why it was useful, but there were certainly innovative people who did and they made up the outline of what has become the enormous marketing niche it is today.
The industry was new and scrappily pasted together via forums and modest blogs. People were understandably cautious with sharing proprietary knowledge about essentially gaming a corporate system and as a result of all this, SEO had a reputation as a dark art. It could be frustratingly difficult to get budget from clients to do anything. It was a slightly dodgy coat of paint slapped on shamefully somewhere between copywriting and sorting out the hosting. You were used to everyone hating on you on Reddit or looking sideways at you at big client meetings. Eesh, the SEOs are here. Check they don’t nick the nice silverware.
This has almost completely changed. Maybe you’ll hear a snide comment here or there about search engine marketing but it’s much less common. It’s a key part of marketing, let alone online. It attracts recent graduates. It’s vital if you sell or market anything at all, be it your own work or anyone else’s. It’s a skill I’m glad I picked up early. But with this widely-adopted professional legitimacy comes a renewed perspective on the industry’s earlier days and, this month, its misspent youth.
And I certainly maintain that that youth was misspent. There was never any excuse, burgeoning industry of people gaming Google for profit or not, for treating women like shit. There was never any excuse for creating unwelcoming environments, many of them hostile on the basis of overt and celebrated sexism. It was as if people couldn’t differentiate the wild west nature of their actual work with how they should conduct themselves towards other humans. In the Newsweek article, industry veteran Earl Grey talks about what we’d have called churn-and-burn sites:
If his detective site gets booted off the search engines, Grey will simply move on to another project. “I’m not very professional,” he says. “I do what I need to do to get where I need to be.”
He is talking about ranking websites and returning with something new if a site is banned (and he is, by all accounts, an “awesome individual”). But there was a distinct trait amongst some others in the industry during the early days–and into the early 2010s–that the lack of “professionalism” they applied to making money off the back of search engines could be liberally applied to other interactions within the scope of their work. For what it’s worth, I largely don’t care how you rank websites and I never have. I do care how you treat other people.
We reached late 2011 and I was questioning myself: I wanted to quit attending gaming conferences that were rife with paid models, and whose after parties I found an awkward gauntlet of pretending I wasn’t one of the only women present whose measurements couldn’t be found on her bio page. But this was normal. This was fine. This was a bit of a laugh. The boys liked it and they will, as I was told, be boys. Some of the boys didn’t like it but they told me in hushed tones behind closed doors. They found it awkward and belittling as well. Best not say so though because you’ll be mocked.
If I quit going to those gaming events, I’d be missing out. The company I worked for was founded by ex-gaming SEOs and we did well in that market. It was a professional risk to say I wouldn’t speak at them or attend them anymore. This is part of what we mean when we talk about exclusionary environments and people who have to make a choice between being deeply uncomfortable doing their jobs, or letting potential opportunities go by the wayside.
For my own conscience I had to refuse to keep attending those events, and I did so with emails explaining why. The people who replied to me were women. They understood and quietly agreed. But they also had jobs and bills and rent, and that was that. Jane Copland was removed from the potential speakers list and nothing was said of it again. Years later, the fact that I’d worked for gaming clients and attended those shows earlier in my career was thrown at me as proof I was a hypocrite and should be discounted and shunned.
Very late in 2011, I got very angry. I had laid out some notes on the things I found grossly amiss with the industry about a year earlier and sitting at the Sutton Arms on Carthusian Street in Barbican one evening, I decided to publish what I had written. It was all driven by frustration and indignation. I had no cultural perspective on what was going on around me, but I do now.
This is a nice picture of the Sutton Arms I took on a sunny Thursday in February 2019 as I walked past thinking about this eventuality; this reckoning. But at the same time this isn’t about me. It was never about me, even though the people who stood to lose face on the basis of what I’d said made it all about me. This was always entirely about the culture they perpetuated and profited from, and it still is now.
In mid-February, I ended up writing what amounted to a thread on Twitter about why I think this is happening now and how it goes beyond playmates, lewd tweets, cover-ups of harassment and the boys’ club culture that I witnessed and had to tolerate at work events. I’ll plagiarise myself with the purpose of reiterating the point: I believe the era of the “rockstar”, which was borne of big personalities taking hold of a burgeoning industry in the 90s and 2000s, is finally over.
Most of the time. Sometimes it went too far. If someone else can get web nerds to take their kits off and take a dip high above Vegas, you can probably get away with hiring some girls to do the same thing. Right? And if you overheard someone tell some other web nerd that you wished she’d have been there with more of her kit off in the pool, maybe you can get away with squeezing her arse to make the point. And if you can get away with all that, it’s probably because you’re well-connected, well-travelled, well-spoken and well-liked. The industry took the lack of professional legitimacy way too far because it suited people, at times, to push already flimsy boundaries. It may have been fine to carry on cheeky conversations or overuse sexual imagery in environments that weren’t threatening but it bled throughout the culture. All the while, people carried on as if marketing conferences were music videos and the subjects were actual celebrities.
From those days and that culture, a power structure was formed that is now clashing with a generation who weren’t there.
If you joined the online marketing industry straight out of university ten years after I did, you were 22 in 2016. The Weinstein scandal dropped about a year after you got your first job, but there were problems in tech that caused upheavals before this. Uber was a little earlier than Weinstein and is probably the best-remembered in our general field. Long before you joined–maybe while you were still in high school–tech was changing. You didn’t get a job in some fly-by-night startup where everything you knew came from sleuthing message boards populated by semi-anonymous accounts and burning affiliate sites. You were 12 when that went on and you have no context, no memory and no interest.
And it’s not just a matter of age. As long as you weren’t around to be wooed by the big parties, the girls, the big game talked by big personalities, all of it is going to look dated and unprofessional. Maybe even if you were around.
This past month, people have shone a new light on the issues I raised seven years ago and the result has been a far harsher critique than it received in late 2011, early 2012. It’s been critiqued through a 2019 lens and it’s come up even shorter than it did earlier this decade. This amazed and frustrated me because I was right back then and not only did little change, but I was slowly and quietly destroyed for it.
But more than that, the 2019 lens is being used to view the backlash, the defence and the perceived protectionism of those who are seeing the industry move on from the one in which they were a celebrity. It doesn’t feel right to a lot of people to see the official videos I pointed out as being gross seven years ago, and then see the critique dismissed as trolling. It doesn’t feel right to hear that many people have stories of bad behaviour but are too scared to talk about it lest they be maligned and labelled liars or trolls. It doesn’t feel right to the legions of normal people who’ve taken up normal careers in the industry that a select few view the industry as “theirs”, because they were the stars.
When one of the first defences I heard in private about this was that the people involved were just jealous that they weren’t “rockstars”, it occurred to me that we’ve hit a point where one generation is completely failing to understand the other.
Rhea Drysdale asked what those of us who’ve talked about this publicly what we want to happen. Truthfully, I don’t know. I don’t attend events anymore. I do think there has been a wildly disingenuous about-face amongst people who used to brag about being rockstars and bad boys and who’d trash-talk feminism and mock me for mine, transforming themselves into caring feminists. Growing and changing is fine, but quiet reinvention when people were hurt by your actions, is not. It’s not fine when you never acknowledged it, never apologised, deleted evidence when you were faced with it down the line and hid behind accusations of trolling to make your case.
People like Rhea and Tom Rayner have mentioned some ideas already that would go far to making real progress, and I think they’ll do it well. I’d love to help. Before they’re successful however, I believe this industry needs to come to terms with the fact that it used to be an unfriendly minefield of machismo, and it needs to let go of the celebrity, rockstar culture entirely. And further, anyone who’s not willing to acknowledge it and make peace with it has no place leading the industry out of this decade and into the future.
“You, guy,” he said to my boyfriend across the table. “It’s not fair. You bring this girl here. It’s not fair.” We asked why not. “Because all women who come to conferences should be available,” he replied. Available to him. Throughout the evening, whenever he got the chance, he repeated that it “wasn’t fair” and that a woman like me shouldn’t be at a tech event if the opportunity did not exist for him to have some of me. He made it clear that he was finding it hard to control himself, and if a breakdown in his self-control happened, that would be unacceptable, but only because I had a boyfriend. This happened in London in late 2010.
What would have happened had I actually been single, or if he had found opportunity to be alone with me? And would that too have been my fault for not coming along with a partner? If you show up alone and he tries to hurt you? All women who come to conferences should be available.
I began writing this blog post the day after the event took place, but was talked out of its importance by my own conditioning. Nothing happened to me. So it’s okay that he said that and that he travels the world (he is not British; he flew here for the conference) treating female conference attendees in that way? I find it hard to believe that I was the only person he’d ever spoken to like that. I talked myself out of it because I was scared.
At my second Pubcon, in December 2007, I learned that another attendee had said he was going to “hook up with me.” The people he said it to told him that was unlikely, as they didn’t believe I was single. The guy’s response was that he didn’t care, it was going to happen anyway, and I was going to like it. This one is closer to home. If you’re reading this because you know me through SEO, you know of this person. These are some of our own.
On both nights, I made sure not to let myself be alone with either of these people. Was it paranoid to believe there was a certain degree of risk from the unwanted attention? From the stories other women tell about their experiences at conferences, I don’t believe it was.
These are just two examples.
There is also the man who announced in front of seven or eight fellow conference attendees that he found it strange I claimed to be very happy having lived in London for two years, since there was no ring on my finger. Me being female, he said, made it hard for him to believe that I could be truly happy without being engaged or married. The people he said this in front of had paid hundreds of dollars in ticket fees, accommodation and travel to hear both him and me speak at a conference, and there he was – reducing me to a ring-hungry twit in front of them.
He apologised to me over email, saying he was only trying to find out if I were single. Which, clearly, he felt was appropriate conference banter as well. I never replied.
From many other conferences I’ve attended over the past five years, I have similar–albeit sometimes less eyebrow-raising–stories or being treated inappropriately, in one way or another, because I’m female. Many of us do.
It’s not as if people are silent about it, and it’s not as though it’s uncommon. When I worked at SEOmoz, my female colleague and I received the odd email from people who saw it fit to approach us inappropriately based upon our being women. And I can’t shake the frustration that there is nothing I can do about it.
What can I do about it?
I can decline to be featured in stupid posts about “the sexiest women in social media”, because it belittles my talent to have to tie it to what I look like, and belittles people further who aren’t deemed suitable for such acknowledgement, solely based on their appearance. When I declined to be in that post, the post’s writer clearly had no idea why I’d feel the way I do about it. In fact, he found it “hilarious”:
An apology for such a list is that “success is sexy” and acknowledgement is benign. But the author won’t feature people he or she considers physically unattractive, and someone shouldn’t be given press above her peers in a profession unrelated to appearance because of her face or her body.
To the small percentage of the population–and of our industry–who are not decent people, seeing ten women given press because of their looks helps to confirm that our presence at a conference is for others’ entertainment. To the man at Conversion Camp in London who told me over and over again that my presence wasn’t fair, because I was not available for him, my only worth was physical.
And I’ve been on the other side too, which is where I think this becomes less of a two-dimensional whine about sexism and more of an argument.
This is why public judgement and objectification reaches so far down my throat and twists my guts so hard. I’ve been on both ends of this shit. I’ve listened to how much men in our industry love going to conferences that used strippers as marketing tools and attendee bait, and I have compared my figure and desirability to those of the women in question.
Not that they ever would after this, but if I were asked to speak at an event like that, I’d turn it down. I’ve turned down a couple of events in the past for similar reasons. You think there are too few women at tech events, or you hear from organisers that they asked women to speak, but that they were turned down? Have you considered the environment you create? Is it exclusionary and primarily for the benefit of straight men? Have you managed to find one or two women who find it acceptable, and do you then hold those women’s testimony up as sterling proof that you aren’t doing anything wrong? Do you use the excuse that “it happens everywhere – look at the automotive industry!” as a reason why you shouldn’t be held accountable in your own back yard?
We keep reading about how the women used as bait make the conference so much better. It comes up over and over again. Regular girls are not plentiful enough, nor good enough company. When this post was originally published, it went up on the same day as another tacky video with Playboy girls front and centre. But the rest of us still receive our fair share of unwanted sexualised attention. Huh? Interestingly, this video has since been removed from the organiser’s website.
It sickens me that I even allow myself to do that! Do I not have high enough self-esteem to be proud of a body that put up with me through twelve years of competitive swimming, an activity that paid for a university degree and saw me represent my country and become its national champion and record holder? Am I not proud of a personality that is what it is after some difficult battles, accomplishments, agonies and victories from which I’ve emerged the adult I am?
Of course, I am. However, mine or other women’s prides aside, facts about our bodies or our faces or their comparison to any other woman’s have no place in our work or our industry. This stands, no matter whether I am judged as having lived up to an ideal, or not having achieved someone’s ideal of physical attractiveness.
And yet I read these posts and I associate with these people whether I want to or not, so the primal doubt climbs back up my spine and taps on the back of my neck. Which am I? Good enough a female specimen to be harassed and fawned over at conferences, emailed sexual requests and asked to flaunt myself in posts on the basis of my looks, or are my female industry peers and I so dowdy that a conference is seen as significantly more desirable if boobier, taller, curvier women are shipped in?
And a good solution is not for women to post images of whatever their sexual ideals might be either. It is not to jokingly suggest that we stage our own event with male strippers as our dancers and butlers. The answer is not for girls to waltz around Pubcon smacking boys’ bums in a pathetic attempt to reverse our lot. The solution is to stop engaging in abhorrent behaviour, whether at conferences, over email or elsewhere.
Harassment and assault happens to women in our industry at large, at our industry’s events and as a result of connections made through our industry.
It’s very simple. You’re smart enough people and good enough marketers and–I hope–good enough human beings to knock it off. Stop accepting sexualised female entertainment at professional events, and stop jointly insinuating that women like me are not good enough for you, but that you have the right to treat us as entertainment to which you are entitled nonetheless.
In the haze that rises off Manakau Harbour, the hills stretching beyond West Auckland are known for little but their slightly flashy suburbs and relative inaccessibility from the city by public transport. The city’s better off residents find their homes at the end of evergreen crescents and avenues for a few miles up into the Waitakere Ranges but after the clean streets of Titirangi give way to bush, Auckland’s city limits are thought to come to an end.
Once the sharp, clean asphalt has surrendered to dirt roads, there begins a trek through the ranges that has become synonymous with a coming-of-age of runners. Numbering ten miles, a handful of people began pounding out this route through Auckland’s volcanic hills in the 1950s because a burgeoning coach called Arthur Lydiard told them to.
People like Arthur shouldn’t be trusted. Normally, you’d be advised to steer clear of someone as zealous as this man, a young man in the late 1950s, who had some brilliant ideas that were completely at odds to the common practices in New Zealand athletics training. In the 1950s, Arthur’s idea that runners should complete one-hundred miles per week of endurance running for ten weeks before embarking on speed work was unproven and virtually untested but the sharp-tongued, gruff Lydiard managed to convince a small number of people that he was right. Not often are someone’s initial guinea pigs the most successful athletes in a nation’s history.
Short, wiry, seemingly ever-weathered and grumpy if he didn’t think infinite justice was being served to the creed of running, Arthur’s utterance of “hello” felt like a lecture. The sparkling blue eyes at the top of a prominent Roman nose were visible from quite a distance and you always knew when you were being watched. Chances were, if he was watching you he was on your side. Arthur Lydiard did not waste his time on people who did not want to spend their time doing what he told them. He did not ask questions and he did not make suggestions: he told people things, instructed people as to what was fact and what was crap. You, he’d say, can be a champion. No reasons, unless you probed him. No explication. You can.
There’s a period of certainty right before you embark on something like Arthur’s athletic regime. It is Sunday night and in front of you are ten weeks of training, mapped out for you by a man who claims he can take you to the Rome Olympics and have you win. You could have been down the track Monday morning, running eight-hundreds and practicing victory salutes but this coach who you’ve entrusted your career to is instructing you to hit the streets instead, pounding around the city of Auckland in the morning and again in the afternoon.
And on Tuesday, too, he says: just run. There is the certainty. It can’t be that hard to just run.
Six days later it isn’t hard anymore, it’s goddamned torture and you’ve yet to complete a tenth of an Arthur Lydiard training programme. This man, an unknown in the field of coaching, competed in the marathon at the 1950 British Empire Games for New Zealand but now he is telling you to leave the streets of Waitakere City, run through Titirangi and lose yourself in the bush behind civilisation, so far away from the Auckland Domain where your counterparts and milling around, waiting for their next time trial. And you don’t give up, return to town and find a coach who knows what a stopwatch is for?
View from the training ground: modern day Auckland City from deep in the Waitakere Ranges
As you disappear into the clouds onto some of the region’s most unforgiving hills and trails, hot and sticky in the summer, cold and sticky in the winter, the safety of the infield at a track, a passing motorist or a nearby payphone becomes as distant as the pavement. Aside from any training partners, people who have also been suckered into this deal and promised outstanding success, you are completely alone. Arthur Lydiard does not care if you crawl back into his house in the suburb of Mount Albert after you have completed your Sunday run around the Waitakere Ranges. He has promised you that in ten weeks’ time, you will be fit enough to run all the way to Italy. Sunday’s weekly journey around the Waitakeres was at once famous and infamous: hated and admired by those who laboured through it every seven days. In the ten years between Arthur’s participation in the 1950 Empire Games and the Rome Olympics of 1960, the people who ran that course would include future Olympic Champions.
Arthur Lydiard was born in 1917, and he died on a December afternoon in 2004 after going running in the morning. His critics will tell you that it was his training that killed him: all that distance can’t be good for the heart, after all. Sometimes it seems that people were waiting a good forty years for him to kick the bucket just so they could blame his ideas on physiology. A man who avidly practiced what he preached, Arthur’s idea was for athletes to ultimately achieve supreme fitness by running extreme distances. If being supremely fit means that one dies at the age of eighty-seven, then maybe that’s just the price you have to pay.
Long periods of aerobic running (that is, running at a pace that can be sustained without a person going into oxygen debt and having to stop) aren’t all that much fun. Neither are long periods of aerobic swimming, kayaking, or cycling and to top off the fun, an “aerobic” pace is by no means “slow”. There is an intensity involved in completing an Arthur Lydiard-style programme that will wear a person’s body down to their last shreds of fat, sometimes producing athletes who look like they would be better off in hospital, or at least at Burger King, than out running.
All that messing around in the bush behind Auckland definitely prepared one athlete rather well for his Olympic event. Barry Magee competed in the marathon at Rome, a race whose passage up the Appian Way took runners over ancient rocks, in the dark, with the flashbulbs of photographers going off in their faces.
Magee first came to believe that Lydiard was onto something decent when he was eighteen, eight years before Rome, and “all the boys in Arthur’s stable were improving faster than anybody in the country.” Magee saw himself and others progress quickly from day one. Up and down New Zealand, Arthur’s name was gaining infamy but true to human nature’s stubborn form, nobody outside of his small circle was listening.
“In (my) first year, there was one Auckland coach who was emphatic that Lydiard’s training would kill me and others. He said this to my face so I know it’s true,” says Barry Magee. This is a notion that is hinted at often by the non-believers, the critics and the doubters, of which there are plenty. You will end up in a wheelchair. You will be plagued by heart problems. No human body can stand that kind of work. You will lose your speed and never get it back. To the last assertion, Arthur’s response was always, where exactly would said speed go?
“I did not have many others tell me directly that his training would not be successful as the results we produced soon squashed the critics, but I did hear of the murmurings around New Zealand that Lydiard’s training would put us on the scrap heap and we would all burn out by the volume,” Magee continues. “Most of it came simply through professional jealousy. We all either ignored it or said, “watch our backs!” or something similar, as we demolished the rest of New Zealand.”
Both of the warnings Magee heard never bore fruit as many of Arthur’s first athletes are still alive or lived long lives, and many had very long, successful careers, not “burning out” at all. But despite this, through the fifties, the sixties, seventies, eighties and nineties, followers of Lydiard’s programme have been threatened with death, illness and other equally unlikely side effects. Exploring why it is that people just won’t convert to Arthur’s way is an extensive exercise in itself.
The reason his programme, with its emphasis on aerobic activity, is relatively unpopular seems to stem from three sources. Firstly, it’s boring. Oh hell, it’s boring. It’s endless and relentless and the moment an athlete finishes a workout, she knows that she has little time before she’ll be up and running again. No day of the week was spared for rest.
“If you have a day off every week, that’s fifty-two days a year,” Arthur barked on many an occasion. “That’s a month and a half. How are you going to beat someone who’s trained for a month and a half more than you have?”
The second reason is that it isn’t rocket science. Somehow Arthur’s plan seems too simple to be true. You run a long way. Then you spend some time back at the athletic track, running fast. Then you win races.
Across all sports, many coaches and athletes can’t handle the idea that it’s this easy and this hard at the same time. They want to find a scientific formula that will make the process seem more complicated and will cut out the gruelling work. Tables and charts and monitors and tests, wires attached to every limb and tubes shoved in every orifice makes athletes feel like a mathematician and a doctor will feed their statistics into a computer and print out a ticket to success, where the backside of West Auckland will only be seen on a flight to the World Champs.
Thirdly, results are slow to be seen during the hard, hard training. Out in the bush behind Auckland, athletes can time how long it takes them to get back to town, aching and miserable, but imagine the disappointment and demoralisation when Week Four’s run took ten minutes longer than Week Two’s! Arthur will have explained that sometimes your body will be slower than before and that the training is still working, but shit. How do you look him in the eye and tell him you still believe?
And be prepared: if you don’t believe, you won’t be required to pretend for very long. Famously, Arthur never took back a runner who had left him for another coach and subsequently changed their mind. The most striking example of this was Nyla Carroll who held the New Zealand record for the half-marathon at 1 hour, 10 minutes and 53 seconds from 1996 until 2011. After leaving Arthur’s coaching regime for that of former New Zealand running great Dick Quax, Arthur virtually ceased to care whether or not Carroll existed, cutting her dead and refusing to take her back when she changed her mind about Quax.
“There were no shades of grey with Arthur,” says New Zealand swim coach David Wright, who also coached runners during the seventies and eighties, using Lydiard principles. “He was your very best friend and would die for you, or you didn’t exist. Your dedication and your faith determined how you were treated.”
Wright was also responsible for much of the work that went into converting Lydiard training from running to swimming, spending almost ten years perfecting a regime in the pool. He has published three books on the subject, Swim to the Top, Swimming: Training Program and Shaping Successful Junior Swimmers. As orthodox as they come in terms of Arthur’s believers, Wright made sure to adhere to the doctrines initially set forth in the 1960s.
“The job I had was to use what I knew about swimming to adapt his principles for the pool, but not to change them one bit. To change them would be virtually sacrilegious.”
Sacrilege. Unorthodox. Believers. Passionate people use words like these. They hint at an element of obsession. One could wonder why Arthur Lydiard cared so much about what he did. A man who died on tour in Texas coaching Houston’s offering of athletes, something drove him to distraction about both his principles and those who believed in them. Renowned teacher, writer and runner Roger Robinson thinks that Arthur’s fixation with athletics stemmed from a few places. First and foremost, his obsession was personal.
“(His programme) wasn’t just a scheme,” Robinson says from his home in New York City. “It was not just a teacher teaching chemistry; he was teaching something that he had invented. It was highly personal.”
Robinson, who lived in New Zealand for many years, knew Arthur well. Amongst Robinson’s achievements in sport was a victory in the Master’s section of the New York Marathon. He sees Arthur’s personality as being highly fueled by personal interaction, and he had respect only for people who showed him their worth through actions, rather than words.
“I wrote to him after the death of his (second) wife, Eira,” Robinson continues. He is talking about how he and Arthur first became friends. He had met Arthur and Eira at a function only six months before she died of cancer. “I told him that I felt bad for him. Arthur never forgot that. The personal contact. From then onwards, we were friends.”
And why shouldn’t a man like Arthur take things personally? He’d fought a personal battle to gain what he had. Having never attended university, in the days before earning Olympic success his work as a coach was supplemented with employment in a shoe factory and as a milkman. Part of his motivation seemed to be the desire for people to be like him: willing to work really, really hard. After a day’s work in the factory or delivering milk, Arthur would come home, drink some tea, and go for a run. Why the hell couldn’t everyone be that dedicated?
“What frustrated him the most was when people didn’t work,” Robinson says. “He realised that hard work had made him successful. He felt betrayed when people expressed an interest and then didn’t work. Why am I wasting my time?”
This sentiment is echoed by Magee in a tribute he wrote about Arthur on runningtimes.com. Six other tributes appear on the site, written by some of athletics’ more influential people. Magee recounts the first time he met Arthur. His coach Gil Edwards had decided that Magee was too talented for Edwards but that Arthur could do Magee justice.
“Son, are you prepared to run 100 miles per week? If not, just tell me, because you would be wasting your time and mine,” Arthur said. Having “stuttered out the word yes,” Magee found himself in Arthur’s care for another twelve years.
The refusal to be shortchanged by anyone, whether it be by someone’s criticism (which he took extremely badly) or by their lack of dedication, could often come across as qualities bordering on stubbornness and an opinionated vanity. However, those who knew him recognised that what was really present was, in Roger Robinson’s words, a complete conviction in himself. He was a “compulsive teacher” whose passion in life was helping others. Incidentally, he used the word “coach”very rarely. He referred to himself as a “teacher” and claimed to have “helped” people with their athletic careers.
“I helped the Finnish national team,” Arthur would say, referring to his time in Finland as a national coach. He’d say the same thing about being in Mexico and when referring to various other places he’d visited and runners he’d known. From his words, you’d have thought he’d just sent these teams and people a few letters, watched them run a couple of miles and gone home. In some ways, his programme was all about him – he invented it, he fought for it and he believed in it fervently. On the other hand, once his own running career was over, it was not about him in the slightest. When I was in his home, it was all about me.
Arthur Lydiard and me, Beachlands, Auckland, January 1999
People of my age and even those slightly older won’t recognise how pioneering Arthur’s attitude towards women athletes was. Women and men who grew up in the eighties and nineties have spent their entire lives understanding the notion of gender equality in sports. Of course to a certain extent, hangovers from the days when women were not considered fit to partake in heavy exercise still exist; however, in the time when Arthur was developing his initial programme the idea of anyone, let alone a woman, exercising as tirelessly as Arthur proposed was truly revolutionary. Arthur was an avid feminist in his refusal to entertain the thought that women couldn’t take part in his training.
Someone who should know about sexism in sport is Kathrine Switzer. She was, after all, the first woman to officially enter and run the Boston Marathon. Her 1967 entry of “K.V. Switzer” was assumed to be male. Switzer survived race co-director Jock Semple’s attempt to forcibly remove her from the event by leaping from a press bus and grabbing her. With her coach and boyfriend, Switzer finished the race in around four hours and twenty minutes, even though her time was never officially recorded and her participation not made official either.
Her experience in Boston and in future races gave her the determination to work for equality in sport. Seven years after her first Boston Marathon, Switzer completed the same race in two hours, fifty-one minutes, smashing the three hour “barrier” and running the race officially, as women had been welcomed to the event in 1972. Her efforts in Boston and worldwide are remarkable. She is married to Roger Robinson and talks about Arthur Lydiard with huge admiration.
“He believed in women’s ability to succeed when most people didn’t. He thought there was no difference. It was just a matter of making them believe,” Switzer says. But his belief in women, she thinks, also stemmed from a more personal source.
“Another motivation was his sex appeal. He was a sexy guy. Charismatic. Vain. He loved women’s attention, but didn’t like silly women. There were sunbeams bouncing off him! He was quick and critical and witty. Because of his personal belief in his success, he radiated a kind of aura. Arthur really knew that he was charismatic and he loved the attention that this brought him. He was motivated by his own charisma.”
Robinson and Switzer also point out Arthur’s egalitarian qualities when it came to runners. Not only did he take people to international glory, he also made people get out of bed after heart attacks and do some exercise. His knowledge of the human body and its physiology led him to believe that exercising after an illness is often the best way to a speedy recovery. Now, Nike does a roaring trade and “joggers” are prolific worldwide. Also laying claim to the coinage of the term “jogging,” Arthur wrote the first book on the subject, Run For Your Life. The single person who sparked this trend that now has everybody from high school students to pensioners pattering around the sidewalks, a half hour in Italy in 1960 is most certainly not the defining moment of Arthur Lydiard’s life.
Before I met Arthur personally, I knew him more commonly as God. This nickname was given to him by my mother, Alison, who was a middle distance runner in New Zealand and trained under a regime that mirrored Lydiard’s in many ways. She recognised his deity-like presence: the authoritarian air he carried with him, which often alienated those who did not know him.
My swimming career was what brought my mother into direct contact with Arthur as he was very much my mentor, but she remembers the first time he spoke to her well. It was 1977 and she had just won the New Zealand 1500 meter championship on the track. Her experience is telling of Arthur’s legend.
“I was walking along behind the grandstand and he was walking in the other direction and he said ‘hello’ to me. I was blown away because I didn’t think he knew me and he was Arthur Lydiard!”
She was rightly impressed. Arthur did not acknowledge people unless he thought them to have a touch of class, an obvious work-ethic and drive.
Alison Wright, Windsor Great Park, 1978
“I just thought (he had) done a fantastic job of changing athletics throughout the world. Although he didn’t coach me, it were his principles that were followed with any minor modifications that Arch made along the way,” Alison says, when asked what she thought about Arthur. Her coach, Arch Jelley, was also responsible for the career of John Walker, who won gold for New Zealand in the 1500m at the Montréal Olympics. Alison held the New Zealand national record over 1,000m from 1979 until 2014.
Arch is now in his nineties. He certainly employed some of the same principles as Arthur and enjoyed some similar successes, however Arch’s view of Lydiard training appears to be more cautious than some of Lydiard’s most devoted disciples, such as David Wright.
“While I believe in Arthur’s main training principles, I do not subscribe to the idea that there is only one way to achieve sporting excellence in any given field,” Jelley says. The former principle of Sunnybrae Normal School on Auckland’s North Shore holds the belief that the ways he and Arthur coached have extensive room for improvement.
“The coaches and physiologists in the more advanced sporting nations have taken Arthur’s ideas on board but have then grafted on their own ideas and philosophy to produce athletes whose achievements are far superior to those of Peter Snell and John Walker. I believe that training programmes should be regarded in a developmental way. That is to say, the ideal programme for any individual athlete has never been devised, but as greater scientific knowledge becomes available, training programmes change to take advantage of this new knowledge. Thus there will always be different approaches to what is the best way to train an athlete to reach his potential. Another way to say this is, ‘Many roads lead to Rome.’”
Until she met him and saw the way he cared about athletes who operated under his system, my mother assumed that this iconoclast, who inspired a religion of his own, was as cantankerous as his mannerisms would have you believe. What people who never encountered Arthur personally usually do not know about him is that he was an extraordinarily caring man who, as Wright said, would and did go out of his way for anyone who he felt merited his attention. He was blind to age, past achievement and talent when it came to those whom he cared about, and he would put as much thought and effort into a thirteen year old as a thirty year old.
When Arthur died, many people whose names never appeared on world or national rankings, and many who never competed in a single race, could relate to the internationally accomplished athletes whom Arthur helped. He’d made such an immense impact on all of us who’d believed in him and followed his lead. There are tales from New Zealand to Finland of his dedication. In London, England, my experience is one among many.
The man who watched Peter Snell and Murray Halberg run from Mount Albert to Olympic gold also drove for four hours in 2001 at the age of eighty-three to watch me and my one teammate compete in the New Zealand Winter Swimming Championships. As he sat on the Rotorua Aquatic Centre’s temporary bleachers, the pundits of New Zealand swimming eyed him with caution. They knew that they were in the presence of an icon whose reputation and worth they’d helped refute over a period of years. They’d told me and my coach, David Wright, many times that the doctors and the mathematicians could do more for me than some argumentative old bugger from the sixties. Arthur watched me win the two-hundred metres breaststroke and then he drove back to Auckland. You can be a champion, he’d once said to me. And, thank God, I’d bought it.
* * *
Never officially retiring, Arthur’s last home was in Beachlands, a settlement southeast of Auckland. Despite its close proximity to the new, gaudy Formosa Country Club, Beachlands is no Palm Beach County. Its charm comes from the streets without sidewalks, properties that end in the ocean and complete lack of influence from the city to the north. Arthur had hundreds of people come to his home over the course of his coaching career: he seemed to view it as a common courtesy to invite people to eat or stay with him at any time.
Sitting in the log-cabin style house with coaches and athletes and instructing them in his stern choppy manner of his opinion on their careers, his speeches on training, fitness and dedication would be interspersed with constant offers of coffee, tea, biscuits, glasses of water, or anything else a guest to his home might want.
“Jane,” he would almost snap at me, midway through a lecture. “Jane. Have a banana. Have a glass of orange juice. In the fridge. Or maybe the cupboard. Jane. Have a glass of juice.”
And he would never be satisfied until a guest had accepted the offer of hospitality. Contrary to many coaching beliefs, his kitchen was full of candy and treats, although he would insist an athlete put honey in her coffee instead of regular sugar and I still do. He had honey specially shipped to him from the South Island. It was, he believed, the best honey in the country. Even regarding details as small as the quality of honey, Arthur passionately believed what he was saying and so you did too. In Barry Magee’s words, “when Arthur Lydiard told me I could win a race, I knew I could.”
The first time this affected me personally was in the way Arthur approached me when I was thirteen and needed to swim a freestyle race in Auckland. I had spent the weekend swimming the breaststroke races at the Auckland Age Group Championships but on the last day of competition, the breaststroke events having been completed, I had been entered in the one-hundred metres freestyle. In the morning preliminaries, I had qualified for the final in second place. The girl who had qualified first had swum two seconds faster than I had. My family and I were staying at Arthur’s Beachlands house, forty-five minutes east of the swimming pool. Arthur decided half way through the afternoon that he would come and see me swim in the evening. We had been in the car for two minutes, driving west, when Arthur turned to me in the back seat.
“Do you think you can win tonight?” he asked. I was hesitant. Of course, with Arthur Lydiard coming to see me I would have to look slick, but the girl ahead of me was two seconds faster, a virtual eternity in sprint events.
“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe I can swim faster than I did this morning.”
Arthur turned back to the front seat and rummaged around in his carrier bag. When he turned back to me again, he was holding a Rocky Road candy bar, full of marshmallows and milk chocolate.
“Eat this,” he said. “And you’ll win the race.”
Of course, I did.
There are so many sources, so many stories and far too much information to soundly bring together a coherent summation of a man who never forgot, never gave up and always cared so very deeply for many people. Towards the end of his life, during surgery to replace his knees, Arthur was beset with a stroke and heart attack but fought through his illness with his wife Joelyne to embark on more projects, such as a U.S. tour in 2004 from which he did not return.
But that was his nature, and if faced with a choice, there is no doubt which scenario Arthur would have picked as his last: sitting at home, inactive and old, or on the road, teaching, helping and encouraging the twenty-first century’s athletes. Someone who had to run twelve miles a day in Rome just to get to and from the athletic track where his runners were training isn’t the kind of dude who would want the rest of us to sit around and mull over how much we miss him or how we wish he were still here to tell us what to do.
He was alive for eighty-seven years and he did not put up with fools. The majority of his life was spent imparting his knowledge, and those who were paying attention know what he said. Lip-service is sacrilegious, because he had no time for pretty words and inaction. Believing in Arthur Lydiard is a religion not just of faith, but of works. And he sure proved that work, it does.