At last year’s World Rowing Championships and World Rowing Coastal Championships, for the first time ever athletes were asked to vote for candidates standing for election to the World Rowing Athletes’ Commission.
The successful five became the first members of the commission to be elected by their peers rather than nominated by their national federations or appointed by the World Rowing Council. As a result, says commission member Julia Michalska-Plotkowiak, awareness of the commission and what it does has shot up by active rowers.
But that has not always been the case. The Athletes’ Commission serves as a voice for rowers in the federation, yet it has taken time for its influence to grow and for athletes to really know what it is and why it exists.
Lenka Dienstbach-Wech, who was chair for seven years until 2019, says when she was first nominated by the German federation to sit on the body she had no idea of what it did.
“That’s also one of the side-effects of these election processes, that athletes are made aware that there is an athlete commission, they’re there for them,” she explains.
Dienstbach-Wech helped drive through the change in the appointment process which led to the introduction of elections, and during that process, the commission also pushed for its chair to not only sit on the World Rowing council but also the federation’s executive board. Current chair, Frida Svensson, is therefore able to represent athletes at the highest possible level.
“There’s a good history now, there’s a legacy of an athlete voice which we never had. It was new, to an extent, when the commission was first started. The notion that athletes had a voice didn’t have a history in the sport,” says Martin Cross, who was part of the Athletes’ Commission and its chair in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and now commentates for World Rowing.
Cross says the focus of the commission has also changed. When he was involved, a lot of their debates centred around issues such as lightweight inclusion, coxes’ weight, fairness in racing and a push for static umpiring. In contrast, Michalska-Plotkowiak and Dienstbach-Wech both say that safeguarding is now top of the agenda, although fairness remains a topic.
“The key focus on the athlete commission is to enable athletes to perform at their best without any interruption and ensure that they can do what they’re supposed to do, to row fast. That’s a broad field,” Dienstbach-Wech says.
“It starts from where do we have our regattas – is that a fair course, is it not a fair course? – on to the whole political landscape. How do we ensure that athletes are really safe in what they do, that they feel that it’s a good environment?”
Michalska-Plotkowiak adds: “We still need to educate. We want to make sure that all around the world everyone knows what safeguarding is. We have some countries that have it, that policy, and we have countries who don’t know. Safeguarding is for everyone.”
Part of that focus “for everyone” is also making sure that the commission represents the whole rowing community. Its current members include para-rower Benjamin Pritchard of Great Britain and coastal representative Esther Briz of Spain, as well as representation from around the world.
“It’s very important to have the balance,” points out Michalska-Plotkowiak. “We are very very open and we have all the representation in here. It’s just the culture of our sport.”
Cross says the commission is more powerful now than it was when he was involved, although he also adds that even in its early days it was “exceptional” for World Rowing to have an athlete voice on its council, and this had a significant impact on decision-making.
The addition of the elected members is a crucial development, says Dienstbach-Wech. It enables current rowers to wander up to their representatives at a regatta and bring their issues up directly, while the continued inclusion of five appointed members enables knowledge transfer. The commission is keen to make sure all athletes, from juniors upwards, know the body exists and are engaging with it.
“We’re actually in a good spot at the moment. With Frida in the executive and quite an active commission we’re right at the pulse of what’s going on,” she adds, saying communication can always be improved.
“But the athletes’ commission is functioning, it’s there and it’s in the highest decision level. So in theory we can do a lot for the athletes,” Dienstbach-Wech concludes.
Current World Rowing Athletes’ Commission
Frida Svensson, Sweden (chair)
Julia Michalska-Plotkowiak, Poland
Robin Prendes, USA
Luke Letcher, Australia
Nazanin Malaei, Iran
Emma Twigg, New Zealand
Mindaugas Griskonis, Lithuania
Niels van Zandweghe, Belgium
Benjamin Pritchard, Great Britain
Esther Briz Zamorano, Spain