International Men's Day: Olympic rower Robbie Manson on body image, mental health and the Worldwide Roar
Robbie Manson competed at two Olympic Games in rowing for New Zealand and is a world-record holder - but he's also proud to be known for breaking down stereotypes and supporting the Worldwide Roar project, as he tells Sky Sports on International Men's Day
Last Updated: 19/11/20 3:37pm
Robbie Manson smashed through a world-record barrier on the waters of Lake Malta in Poznan three years ago, setting a single sculls achievement that still stands today.
Yet that's certainly not the only way in which the New Zealand rower, who also represented his country at the London and Rio Olympics, has made a lasting impression on sport.
"I learned that I'm a lot stronger and more resilient than I gave myself credit for," he wrote in 2014 as he publicly shared his story of being a gay athlete for the first time, via the website Outsports.
A wave of supportive headlines followed along with plenty of goodwill messages, but there was also a subconscious effect. On reflection, Manson feels the act of coming out allowed him to untangle any complications between sexuality and sport in his own mind. Subsequently, his focus was where it needed to be, never more so than at that World Cup regatta in Poland in June 2017.
"When you're lining up on the start line against your competitors, all of that stuff's irrelevant," he tells Sky Sports from his home in Cambridge, near Hamilton. "I'm going to go as hard as I can from A to B and I've proven that I can do that faster than anyone else has ever done in the history of our sport.
"In rowing, I wanted to make my sexuality irrelevant in a way, which is really what it should be. It's a part of me, but not a defining part."
With this new visibility came confidence. In December 2015, Manson posted a cheeky picture to Instagram of both himself and brother Karl - also a rower - enjoying New Zealand's great outdoors in the altogether.
He tagged in the Warwick Rowers, a project that began as a naked calendar featuring one university rowing team and grew into a globally recognised initiative, raising over £250,000 for good causes including an associated charity called Sport Allies tackling homophobia and discrimination.
Messages were exchanged between Manson and the WR, and a few months after setting his world record, he joined them for a photoshoot in Sydney and became the centrefold for their 10th anniversary calendar.
Now featuring a wider range of athletes from different sports and rebranded the Worldwide Roar, the project places greater emphasis on making diversity more visible. However, its core mission statement remains the same - to offer a view of masculinity that counters what remains of an overly 'macho' culture and instead celebrates a more rounded idea of what it means to be a man. Behind the attention-grabbing imagery is a message that resonates hugely with Manson.
"It's really about men's health and mental health, and making that more talked about," he explains. "I hope I've helped in one way by challenging homophobia in sport, but this project goes beyond that.
"It's saying that anyone can put themselves out there to be visible - you don't have to have this tough armour. Clothes are a metaphor for armour. It's OK to be vulnerable, whether that's by baring everything or just talking about our weaknesses."
Baring everything, being vulnerable, it’s a good message for all men - you don't have to have this tough armour.
'How do we want to look at men?'
On International Men's Day, the Worldwide Roar want to extend that conversation even further. Inclusion has always been an integral theme but wedded to that is the recognition that an idealised perception of the 'perfect' male body image - something the sports and fitness industries inevitably tend to perpetuate - can represent a barrier in itself.
Lucas Etienne joined the project as a Warwick Rower and has since moved behind the camera and behind the scenes, as well as featuring in the latest calendar. He's passionate about diversifying the project so that more men feel comfortable regardless of physique.
"Before I got involved, I was very self-conscious of the way I looked and the way people looked at me," he says. "I grew up surrounded by media and social media portraying body ideals and success stories, and that put a lot of pressure on me as an athlete and as a man.
"With this project, I learned being vulnerable is actually not a bad thing and talking about vulnerability is healthy. Five years later, I'm still self-conscious, but I've come to embrace my own identity and body through this project. When I'm comfortable with myself, that's the best version of me."
For some, it's not the man in the mirror that's the problem - it's the damaging internal monologue they can't escape. Manson says he became happier when he could tune out negative thoughts and find his true voice. "I was a very promising younger athlete before I came out," he says. "I'd already won the U23 World Championships, and I was very motivated and determined, regardless of my sexuality.
"I guess I was just able to enjoy it a lot more because I was authentic and I wasn't hiding that part of myself anymore. And I always say a happy athlete is a fast athlete."
Casting away the baggage of expectation and the fear of not 'fitting in' added to the Kiwi's sense of freedom. "The fact is, there's some things that I like and enjoy that are viewed as being stereotypically gay, and there are some that aren't, but regardless of any of that, I'm still a very competitive sportsman."
What are the stereotypes for men in sport? "There's still the idea that you can't show any weakness because you don't want your competitors or your team-mates to see - that's a huge thing that scares people.
"But everyone has flaws and emotions - by accepting and embracing them, that actually makes you a stronger person, and therefore a stronger athlete, and a better friend or family member, as opposed to someone trying to fight something or block it out.
"It's a little bit like trying to hide your sexuality if you are gay. If you're trying to be super tough and present this image of having no emotions or weakness, it goes hand in hand. There's a lot of similarities."
Allyship and authenticity
Increasingly, academics are attempting to peel back the layers that still surround masculinity in sport and examine how a project like Worldwide Roar can help to create a healthier, more wholesome picture.
A study of the Worldwide Roar called 'Athletes for Action' has recently been launched by Leeds Beckett University and the University of Calgary; it will seek to determine what motivates athletes to participate in the project, the perspectives they had before and after, and the personal impact on their wellbeing.
"Worldwide Roar brings to the fore topics that are often overlooked or considered off-limits in heteronormative spaces like sport," says Leeds Beckett's Dr Adam Lowe. "This study provides an opportunity to investigate these topics through interviews and focus group discussions with WR participants.
"As a research team, we have a shared interest in contemporary masculinities, so in particular an understanding will be sought regarding what part masculinities play in the men's experiences, especially regarding the nudity involved in the project and the reception of the finished product by fans and followers."
Alex Guerrero, a mixed martial arts contributor of African-American and German heritage who grew up in Mexico, was apprehensive about getting involved with WR at first but has now been taking part for three years. "Before the first shoot, I couldn't remember the last time I was fully naked in front of other men, let alone gay men.
"I had a bit of an issue with taking off my underwear but as soon as I did, I felt completely comfortable. Now I feel that being naked in front of another guy removes those layers of learned behaviour that all men need to get past."
Etienne agrees. "You don't need to be an extrovert to take part in the project. The truth is not all the guys who do it are very confident. But if you think what we're doing is important - and even if you're not 100 per cent sure about taking part - sign up to squadWR.org and then we can have a chat together about how you can get involved."
Amid the disruption and loss brought on by the pandemic, many aspects of our lives have been brought into sharper focus, often with career-changing consequences. The postponement of the Tokyo Games to 2021 brought Manson to a decision of his own - he announced last month that he is taking "an indefinite break" from competitive rowing at the age of 31 and has instead been pursuing his passion for equestrianism, grooming for one of New Zealand's top showjumpers.
He's an advocate for taking a step back and viewing life differently. "Let's give men the confidence to reach out and support each other, particularly now when the pandemic has made many things uncertain, such as the future of travel and sports events.
"Admit that it's a tough time and how that makes us feel vulnerable - that should bring us together, which is really the aim of the whole project."
The Worldwide Roar welcomes all applicants who define as male and are competent in at least one recognised sport. To register, go to squadwr.org. The WR 2021 charity calendar is available from worldwideroar.org and selected retailers.
Sky Sports is a member of TeamPride which supports Stonewall's Rainbow Laces campaign, returning for its annual activation from November 26 to December 13. If you'd like to help inspire others in sport by sharing your own story of being LGBT+ or an ally, please contact us here.