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Interview with Karin Torneklint

Karin Torneklint will be one of our speakers in conjunction with the event Future Proofing Sports - How to become a more inclusive and competitive sports nation? Please read the interview with Karin Torneklint below.

This is Karin Torneklint 

  • Head Coach for the Swedish Athletics Federation for 8.5 years
  • Trainer of Susanne and Jenny Kallur (former Track & Field athletes) 
  • First female captain in Swedish athletics and among the first in the world
  • Chief of Sports at the Swedish Bandy Association
  • EPOS representative (network supporting, inspiring and connecting female leaders in sports)

Can you describe your career as the Athletics National team captain?

I think it boiled down to me being the trainer of Susanne and Jenny Kallur this made the association start considering me as captain. So, after a while, I got the question, accepted it, and remained in the position for 8,5 years. All in all, I have been the longest sitting National team captain, the first female captain in Swedish athletics and among the first in the world.

Karin Torneklint Bildspel_Moment 5.jpg

Why do you think that you remained in the position for so long?

Probably 2 things. First, I wanted to sit longer. At the end of my first period, that was 3.5 years, I felt that I had just learned how to be a good captain. So, I said that I wanted to stay for an additional period, and they seemed happy with my work, so I continued.

Being the first female captain, did it create any particular challenges or benefits?

I think there is a distinction to be made here. It is not per se about gender, but rather being different. It complicates the whole process of  evaluation and performance measurement – because you never know whether people relate it to your persona or whether it is your work. For example, in an interview you will notice that someone who is different also gets different questions. Society does not really reflect on whether you are good or bad, just that you are different. Hence you need to be very confident in what you do.

Did it change under your time as National Team Captain?

Yes, when I started there was a lot of focus on it, so I decided that I was not going to answer those questions. My male colleagues would never be asked how they balanced home choirs etc. I don’t think it is out of malice, but rather that reporters find it so impressive with someone being different, that they forget that hearing “how is it going for your children?”. For the fiftieth time is quite tiresome. 

It is interesting how you redirect the focus from gender to being different…

It is unwise to delimit the discussion to only gender. For example, we have not had any national team captain with foreign background, that would probably also change discussion focus. Which is sad, because the focus should be on the person’s efforts rather than his  or her persona. Of course, it is good to lift the discussions but it should be done in proportion. Finally, also remember that it is seldom ill will. We rather need to educate and practically apply the learnings. How often is it that a person who has studied gender matters, wonders why themselves have not reflected more? Quiet often - we just need to reflect more and question our own practices more. 

However, there is a certain balance in regarding these matters- how much should we raise the question yet not setting the full focus on it?

During my first years as national team captain, I was stressed by the question. It seemed to make my work more about being a woman rather than sports. Nevertheless, we must realize that we treat people differently, and also dare to realize our own faults. I was also a part of the problem, and one step in the process was realizing how I upheld these ways. If we are not lifting the problem, it cannot be resolved. It requires work from all people, and action from the right people.

We cannot just expect efforts from women, but we also need changes from the people in power that prevent women from taking office. We need to help the women that have not been able to break the glass ceiling yet. Why are they held back? What is interesting.

You have discussed the low share of female trainers. What made you continue while so few others did?

When I was training the Kallur sisters and we were sitting on meetings, you often heard; "this is Karin Torneklint, and she is also a woman”. And I just thought, cannot people see that without explicitly saying it? Already then, the gender aspect was pointed out. The question was thus highlighted early on and just continued for several years.  I thought it would get better once I became National Team Captain, but during my first period I noticed that nothing had really changed. I was in a position of power, so I had to question how I contributed to the problem. Having such influence and not actually using it to improve, then you have failed in my meaning. But at the same time, it requires some insights, having built a mandate and ability to see the problematic patterns.

But on a positive note, have you identified any benefits of being a woman while in your career?

Sitting in the performance management team, with only men I felt a need to start the discussion and question certain expressions. We need to work with culture and language. One of my current interests relates much to the gender distribution and prerequisites for football trainers. There are so many aspects to include here. Look for example, at Pia Sundhage, she has only been requested to train something like a division 6 male team. And I am just wondering how is that possible? Taking the fight to include more women is so strenuous, but the barriers must be broken! People must dare to break cultural norms.

Scientists have found that more diverse groups have less sexual harassment and problems, which is great. Then I don’t know whether it relates to my gender or my personality but I felt that I had a very good connection to our female athletes and sensed that they dared to say more to me than what they felt comfortable doing to my colleagues, and vice versa. Hence why we should be two, in order to properly complement each other. But I have a hard time saying that this would be gender related, rather having a greater diversity in the people to confide in.

Today you are working with EPOS, could you have seen yourself in this role 15 years ago?

No, my focus was for a long time performing as a trainer and national team captain, and I felt that gender questions in a sense they latched on to me. I wanted to focus on sports. But when I got older, I did not feel the need to prove myself in regards to sports performance, and I had built a platform on which these questions could have more power. It is almost impossible to be young and green, and make a significant impact. So, I reason, it is up to us old hand players, to take the fight for the young.