Thursday, 12 March 2020

The (global) politics of marathon swimming

We are living in very strange and scary times - climate catastrophe, a pandemic, US and UK leaders who are incompetent, lazy, sexist, malevolent ideologues void of empathy and compassion (it's my blog - I can say what I like). On a lesser scale, but another major stressor for me and many of my colleagues in Higher Education, is a our long-running disputes over working conditions and pensions, including most recently, nearly 4 weeks of strike action that's coming to an end (and without resolution) tomorrow. Against this bleak and uncertain context, I've been thinking about a couple of things in relation to marathon swimming (itself an uplifting practice in difficult times) where I think that positive changes can be made to make our lives just a little bit better. Not everyone will agree, but perhaps this can be a contribution to some conversations that I think we need to have as a community. In particular, I've been thinking about two things: (1) the responsibilities of the marathon swimming community in the context of climate change; and (2) the need for proactive trans-inclusivity.

Firstly, climate change. Given that many parts of the world have been / still are on fire, there is no (sensible) denying the urgency of climate change. It feels like such an insurmountable challenge that it's hard to feel like any direct action on an individual level is significant enough to make a difference. I'd also be the first to admit that I'm a little late to the party on some of this, so none of what follows is in the spirit of setting myself up as an eco-paragon. But along with other aspects of my life / consumption, I've been thinking a lot about marathon swimming and flying. Marathon swimming is a practice that involves a great deal of long-haul travel for many of those eager to complete the 'big' swims on the roster. This is exacerbated by challenges like the Oceans 7 or its ice-mile equivalents, with these latter in particular involving extensive travel to already-fragile ecosystems. I understand the desire to make these trips and I have done more than my share of long-haul flying for swimming (as well as work / leisure). But I wonder if this is the moment when we need to be rethinking what the travelling involved in marathon swimming might be costing those very aquatic environments that we travel to enjoy.

I recently attended a 'teach-out' talk here at Leeds that was being held as part of the strike action. Politics scholar, Jonathon Dean, gave an amazing lecture on the politics of bird(watch)ing, describing how he loved taking trips all around the world to observe unfamiliar birds in their natural habitats. It reminded me of the many swimming holidays and swim challenges that we all love. He told us that he had decided to no longer take those trips because he felt that he could no longer justify the environmental impacts of those flights, especially given his investment as a birder in those environments and their wildlife; he spoke about how sad this made him feel and what a loss it was, but that he was certain that it was the right thing to do. And I think that this might also be true about swimming - that while the world is literally on fire, we have to stop. And so, as a start (and this is by no means a definitive answer to a complex problem), I've decided to no longer sign up for any swims that would involve long-haul flying (and I'm also refusing long-haul flying for work). Like I said, I'm no paragon here - I've done lots of swim-related flying in the past, and am scheduled to fly to the Canary Islands in a few weeks for a writing retreat, where there will certainly also be some swimming (although COVID-19 may also put paid to all that). But I think that it's something that the marathon swimming community should be thinking and talking about. I know that many local swimming orgs are strongly invested in environmental protection (NYOW is an excellent example of this), and am inspired by the work that many people are doing to change their patterns of movement and consumption to minimise environmental harm (going vegan, reducing plastic, using public transport etc). Stopping marathon swim-related flying is just one small step, but I think it's worth considering. This feels like a time when things really need to change, not least before the aquatic environments where we love to swim are irrevocably damaged.

The second issue is one of trans-inclusivity. As I write this, the UK is caught up in a bonfire of transphobia. Mainstream newspapers are publishing opinion pieces with appalling regularity demonising trans people, creating a deeply unsafe environment for a group that is already multiply disadvantaged and discriminated against, and globally, trans people are finding themselves on the receiving end of discriminatory legislative interventions and hostile environments that make their everyday lives increasingly dangerous and difficult. Sport is something of a lightning rod for this, with high profile athletes like the swimmer, Sharron Davies, speaking out against trans inclusion in women's sport, relying on a transphobic ideology dressed up in unsustainably reductive biological accounts of what constitutes a 'woman' in order to facilitate that exclusion.

So this seems like the perfect opportunity to me for the marathon swimming community (and the open water swimming community more widely) to take a proactive stand and explicitly declare its inclusion of trans people as a matter of policy and practice. As an absolute minimum, this should include allowing swimmers to self-identify without question for the purposes of swim recording (and to make clear in the regulations that this is the case). But perhaps this is also a moment when we could think about moving away from the binary categorisation of men / women in marathon swim recording. Ultra-endurance sport is an arena where the performance gap between men and women is the least predictable and marked and I'm not convinced that there is any need for gender binary categorisations at all; to get rid of them would be to open up the sport proactively to those who are currently excluded by it (e.g. those identifying as non-binary) and enable us to blaze a trail in looking beyond a gender binary that is, for many, tyrannical and destructive in the way it is enforced socially. People could still self-identify in the records (male / female / trans / non-binary etc), but without forcing those identifications into the binary frame. Trans and non-binary people currently face enormous challenges in accessing sports like swimming, where the visibility of the uncovered body can make them very vulnerable to public scrutiny, hostility and violence. The overt opening up of marathon swimming to those people would send a significant message that transphobia is not acceptable and that all swimmers are welcome. Particularly in the UK (but also globally), it is not enough to wait until the situation arises or to just passively stand by with inclusive intent; I believe that we need to stand collectively and proactively in defence of trans-inclusion in policies and practices of the sport's organisations, communities and practices right now, leaving no doubt about the unacceptability of transphobia and its discriminatory effects.

So these are just thoughts - the kind of thinking that happens when you're on strike, the world is on fire in multiple ways and the only sustained public response is the panic-buying of toilet roll -  but serious thoughts nevertheless in serious times.