Bridie O’Donnell wants to make women’s sport better, so others don’t suffer like she did

Former champion Australian road cyclist Bridie O’Donnell used to find herself in “compromising positions” just to be paid, such was the state of European professional women’s cycling in 2010.
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Promised her money but then not paid on time, O’Donnell (while riding professionally in Italy) was on one occasion told to meet her “financially and emotionally abusive” team director at his house at 10pm so she could get her wage.

“I’d take a teammate with me and he’d be furious,” O’Donnell, Victoria’s head of the brand-new Office for Women in Sport and Recreation, told Fairfax Media.

“You’d hear these stories about him and I was put in a really bad position and didn’t want to not demand the salary we had agreed on and signed on in a contract, but I also knew that other athletes who had complained to the UCI about instances that were highly inappropriate were met with no help or recourse.

“He would show up at our team house – which he owns – to scream at you about the way the house is cleaned … There wasn’t at that time great governance about how teams managed riders, whether or not they paid them, honoured contracts or whether they emotionally, physically, sexually or financially abused them.”

O’Donnell also said if you spoke up against the bosses in those teams you simply weren’t selected to compete, because the team heads knew not competing would make it hard for the athletes to be chosen to ride for their countries.

“Being on these teams is the only pathway to race professionally or in UCI-governed races. You can’t be an independent person and enter like a triathlon or ironman.”

While things have improved, there is still no UCI-sanctioned minimum wage for female riders.

It was experiences like those that inspired O’Donnell – a medical doctor who has worked recently at the Epworth Hospital – to become the first head of Victoria’s Office for Women in Sport and Recreation (OWSR).

She understands how gaps in the political governance of sport can lead to poor conditions for female athletes and wants Victorian women to have the best possible recreational environments on offer – whether they’re elite performers or weekend warriors.

O’Donnell is a national road time-trial champion, represented Australia at three world championships, and once held the world track hour record.

OWSR was announced earlier in 2017 as one of the recommendations from a panel of experts, headed by Richmond president Peggy O’Neal, which looked into how Victoria’s politicians could better govern women’s sport given its recent surge in popularity.

Given the success of the AFLW, the rise of the Matildas and the continuing strength of women in sports such as basketball and netball the government wants to both “strike while the iron is hot” and get as many women playing sport as possible, while simultaneously making sure conditions and infrastructure for that to happen are adequate.

O’Donnell is passionate about using her role to make sport and recreation easier, safer, more inclusive and more tailored to women in Victoria and will work to implement changes from a professional level right down to “mums taking their kids for a walk more regularly”.

“Married women who work with children have the worst mental and physical health in Australia,” she said. “They constantly prioritise themselves last. They put children, partner, finances, job, the dog before them.

“It’s just reminding women that it’s about you’re a better mother, wife, daughter or whatever if you have had time to be active, to be healthy. You can do more.

“The bandwidth of behaviour change that I can influence and the possible policies and future that I can shape of young women and their attitudes to themselves and how they can be involved across all areas of sport, including governing, I couldn’t pass this up.”

She was a rower and an ironman triathlete before she became a cyclist at age 36. When she wasn’t able to get a cycling contract overseas she returned to Australia to ride and manage local teams, something that she said prepared her for her new role.

“I’ve had so much lived experience of good and bad challenges in sport and the same in medicine. There is a long history of ruthless, hierarchical bullying in the medical fraternity toward women.

“For many women they just change or shape their efforts to remain as focused as they can on what they can control but it does mean you hit a ceiling on what you can achieve.”

O’Donnell will have three staff working with her in the office and will begin in the role in early November and she says getting out and meeting people involved in women’s sport will be her top priority.

“I am going to need to hear a lot of people tell me what they want, what they’re doing, what’s working and what’s not working and then we almost need a massive piece of butcher’s paper and then sit down and prioritise things.”

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.