Qualtrough and Smith: The new faces of Canadian sport leadership

In a realm traditionally dominated by men, Canada's new Minster of Sport and new Olympic Committee President are putting a new and female face on the world of high performance sport.

From athlete to the board room, Carla Qualtrough and Tricia Smith have found ways to overcome barriers

Tricia Smith, president of the Canadian Olympic Committee and Carla Qualtrough, minister of sport (CBC)

Because it's 2015 it's hard to know whether the recent appearance of women in the two top sport positions in Canada is a big deal.

First it was Carla Qualtrough, appointed minister of sport when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau named his cabinet. Then Tricia Smith earned the right to drop "interim" from her title as Canadian Olympic Committee president after last weekend's election to replace the disgraced Marcel Aubut.

Both B.C. women boast impressive resumés and countless hours of experience in the national and international sport trenches. And in their younger days, both used their athletic talents to win Olympic and Paralympic medals for Canada — Smith in rowing, Qualtrough in swimming respectively. 

Delta, B.C. MP Carla Qualtrough is in charge of the sport, and persons with disabilities portfolio. A successful lawyer and former Paralympian, Qualtrough chaired the B.C. Minister’s Council on Employment and Accessibility. She has been visually impaired since birth. (Chris Wattie/Reuters)

So the fact of being female is hardly the most notable resumé line of either.

But it is significant.

" I don't think 10 or 15 years ago you would have seen a female sports minister and a female president of the COC — which is just awesome," said Qualtrough.

Smith is more equivocal when asked if it makes a difference having women in key sport leadership positions.

"I don't know," she said. 'I certainly think our experience as women in sport, and as elite athletes gives us a depth of understanding and a kind of wisdom."

Part of that wisdom is the knowledge that high performance sport worldwide is still very much the domain of men, especially around the board table.

While female participation in the Olympic Games has grown steadily, (40 per cent in Sochi 2014) of the 98 IOC members, only 19 are women. Four women sit on the 15 person IOC executive board.

System doesn't support women

In British Columbia a splashy campaign called Level the Field is aiming to bring awareness to the stark imbalances that still exist throughout sport, including the fact, that in Canada, women hold only positions on 28 per cent of all boards.

Qualtrough says one of the problems is the system isn't always set up to support women.

"I think the way we do sport isn't attractive to young women or young mothers in the sense that it requires you do conference calls between five and eight at night. Or you have to be away on weekends," she said. 

As a mother herself, Qualtrough says balancing sport life and home life has required a certain amount of flexibility and creativity. 

One strategy she used was to schedule conference calls between six and seven in the morning. "That way I could quietly do an hour of sport volunteer work, then when the family was waking up at seven I could go on and do the family role," she said. 

She also raised eyebrows bringing a newborn on trips and to meetings. In fact, Qualtrough can almost chart the development of her youngest through the various stages of helping organize the Toronto 2015 Pan Am and Para Pan Am Games.

"I was pregnant with her when we were in Guadalajara bidding for the games. She came with me to Toronto every three months for the past five years," said Qualtrough. 

That's what mommy does

"At the beginning my mom would come, or [the baby] was literally in the car seat under table while I was doing the board meetings. As she got older we would put her in the corner with crayons and colouring book."

"She just thinks that's what mommy does," she said.

Tricia Smith, right, was named the new president of the Canadian Olympic Committee on Sunday. (Canadian Olympic Committee)

Smith, who remembers a time when women weren't allowed to touch the men's oars at the Vancouver Rowing Club, says while Canada is "a bit ahead of the game" when it comes to gender balance, things aren't as evolved elsewhere.

"The world of international sport is very much based in Europe and sometimes the challenges there are ones we faced in Canada some years ago," she said. 

Through years of service with the International Rowing Federation (she's now vice president) Smith says she grew accustomed to asking simple questions about assumed ways of doing business.

"For example, when the youth Olympic Games started, someone said of course we'll have more boy's events than girl's," she recounted. "And you just speak up and ask, 'Well, why would that be?'"

"You have to be at the table," she added. "That's why I think it's so important that Canadians are in these international federations because they will ask the questions," she added.


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