Athletics, like many sports, can prepare a person for their life beyond their sports career.
Learning how to rise above challenges certainly helped 2000 Olympic 400m bronze medallist Katharine Merry in her move to a career in broadcasting.
“I was inspired by Kathy Cook, who won Olympic bronze at Los Angeles in 1984, and when I came into athletics, I was very aware of a 50-50 sort of split in the sport,” said Merry, speaking at the IAAF World Indoor Championships Birmingham 2018, where she worked as the in-stadium presenter.
“I only realised the difference in representation when I retired from the sport in 2005 and went into the world of broadcasting,” she added. “The major imbalance in terms of gender wasn’t just in front of the camera but behind it as well, especially in commentary type roles. It wasn't the kind of 50-50 balance that I had been used to throughout my career.”
Merry, whose 400m PB of 49.59 made her the fastest athlete in the world for the 2001 season, says that she was fired up by people who suggested she may struggle in broadcasting.
“I love my sport, love to provide insights on it and commentate on it but there were a few people who were like, 'Oh, you're going to find that very hard'. Those comments were kind of a driving factor.
“My experience in athletics had taught me that if you ever win a medal, it was because you’re among the very best. If you can do your job properly, it doesn't matter if you're male or female.
“There is an imbalance, but it has to have a culture change and it has to come from people on top who make decisions,” she added. “The broadcasting world is still definitely male-dominated but it’s getting a lot better.
“All I can personally do is continue doing a good job. I’m happy to be on a personal secret mission if it paves the way and opens the mind and opinions of the people to make those opportunities available.”
Merry feels that there are other factors that have hindered women’s growth in the industry.
“I don't sometimes think that it's necessarily due to lack of opportunities; I think it can generally come down to the way someone can lead their life,” she said. “It isn't very easy for women to get into coaching. A friend of mine started coaching and took on athletes but then she got married and had her first child. All of a sudden, the coaching had to take a back seat. Being a mother meant she had to make sacrifices that she didn't want to make.”
Merry, who throughout her career was coached by men, had never considered coaching as a viable option when she was younger.
“There were no female coaches who I would see on a daily or a weekly basis and would inspire me and put that seed in my mind,” she said. “All of my coaches were male from the age of 10 to the end of my career. I can’t remember any of the top female coaches when I was going through my athletics career. But now I could name quite a few.”
While there might not be a quick fix to gender inequality in sport, Merry’s own experiences form the basis of the advice she gives to other women.
“There isn’t any role that can't be done more efficiently and effectively simply based on whether you’re a male or a female,” she says. “Stop asking yourself how much you want to do it. Be prepared for it because some things won’t come easy.
“You have to bang on doors, you will have to make a noise about it and ask questions. Don't be afraid to ask questions and don't be afraid to push forward. And, if you think something's not fair, don’t be afraid to ask why.”
Bihan Sengupta (AIPS young reporters) for the IAAF