Dame Louise Martin's illustrious career in sports administration is a testament to her unwavering dedication and visionary leadership.
Born in Dunfermline in 1946, Dame Louise's journey from a promising young swimmer to becoming the first female President of the Commonwealth Games Federation is a remarkable story.
From the outset, it was evident that Louise Campbell, as she was known before she married Ian Martin in 1973, possessed a natural affinity for the water. Her talent as a swimmer became evident as she competed in the 110-yard backstroke and 220-yard backstroke events at the British Empire and Commonwealth Games in Perth, Australia, in 1962.
In an era before the availability of substantial funding for elite athletes, Martin faced the realities of limited resources. Undeterred, she chose to prioritise her education, earning a diploma in domestic science and food and nutrition from Edinburgh College of Domestic Science. However, those memories of the 1962 Games have left a lasting impression on her.
“I have so many memories – from being told I was going to travel!” remembers Dame Louise.
“We met at Edinburgh station and took a train to London. There is a fantastic photograph of us all sitting on the luggage at the airport. We were all dressed in our parade uniform to travel to Australia, that is how naive we were.
“We had overnight flights – from London to Paris, Paris to Cairo, Cario to Karachi, Karachi to Singapore, and then Singapore to Perth.
“It was 42 hours of flying to get there – and we were all still in our parade uniform.”
“I remember that we were not able to swim in the relay because we only had three females in the team – we did not take a freestyler. If we had had the fourth swimmer there, we would have won a medal.
“We all know that because we did our calculations. So that was our little bit of a disappointment, but it was a fantastic Games.”
Competing is just one part of the excitement of attending a Games and Dame Louise says it was the friendships that she made that have stuck with her over the years.
“I still have a very good friend in Australia who I met at the Games - we met in the swimming pool.
“I was a backstroker, she was a butterflier and we collided in the pool!
“We blamed each other for not looking where the other was going, my answer was that I was looking at the sky – but we've been friends ever since.
“And it's just that; it's a family and that's what the Games are all about. We are one big family.”
Family. That word crops up time and time again throughout her life and presents ideals of commitment, nurture, and belonging.
While it would be natural to think that her participation in the 1962 Games led her to her role at the Commonwealth Games, Dame Louise reveals that once again it was her commitment to family that started her on that particular journey.
"Where I am now did not come about because I was an athlete in the Commonwealth Games,” explained Dame Louise.
“You could say it came through all my other roles of lecturing in sports nutrition, but more importantly it was my daughter who led me to this role."
"She was just starting gymnastics in Inverness. They had no Secretary for the club and if they didn't have someone to look after the club, then it was stopping.
“I was taking her up and down to training, so I just offered to do it.”
That role developed as her daughter Kerry rose through the gymnastic ranks and it became more of a family affair when her husband Ian became Treasurer.
From there she became Secretary for Scotland Gymnastics and a year later was asked to stand for President of Scotland Gymnastics.
The position of President meant that Dame Louise had a place on the Commonwealth Games Council and her keen intellect and organisational acumen quickly set her apart.
When the incumbent Secretary for the Commonwealth Games Federation died, it was the Canadians who asked her to stand for the role and she traveled to the 1999 Commonwealth Games General Assembly to present her case.
“The General Assembly that year was in Fiji and I'll never forget this because no female had been elected to the board at all in the Federation.
“I was standing against a Kenyan male candidate. And this time you had to stand up and talk about yourself, which had never been done before.
“At the General Assembly, you are placed in alphabetical order so, Scotland was right at the back of the room. When I was called, I had to make my way from the back, and as I was passing the Canadians, they whispered ‘Don't talk about being a female.’
“I was shaking like a leaf in front of this whole room and was thinking, ‘But I am a female!’
“Out of 300 people, only 30 were women and I started to feel panicky. I took a deep breath and said: ‘Do me a favor. Don't judge me for what you see, judge me for what I can do because what I am has nothing to do with me – that was done long before I was born!’
“That got a laugh and that calmed me down and I was able to give the reason why they should vote for me.”
And vote they did with Louise Martin becoming the first woman to be voted onto the Commonwealth Games Federation board.
It was at the same meeting that Dame Louise proposed to the attendees the idea of hosting a Commonwealth Youth Games. She had seen first hand how many potential young athletes were not reaching their potential when transitioning to senior level and passionately believed a multi-sport youth event could address the problem. The concept was unanimously agreed and a year later in 2000, the inaugural Commonwealth Youth Games was hosted in Edinburgh with the opening and closing ceremonies part of the Edinburgh Military Tattoo.
Dame Louise’s steadfast commitment and farsighted management are qualities that have seen her become a trailblazer in international sports administration. However, it is her dedication to strengthening the Commonwealth Sport family that sets her apart.
Her empathy and commitment to building strong relationships is perfectly highlighted in her role in Scotland's bid to host the Commonwealth Games in 2014. Up against Nigeria, Dame Louise has always believed that the Commonwealth Games means one big happy family.
“When Scotland were bidding for Glasgow to host the Games, we were up against Nigeria. They found it very difficult to relate to me. But we talked and we just kept working it through.
“Then when we got to Sri Lanka for the actual vote, the night before we had a big reception and we were sitting with the head of the Nigerian bid team. I just said, whatever we do, we must make sure that whoever wins, we have to stay friends after this.
“And he got up and said, no, no, we won't because we will be family. You are my sister now and I am your brother and that's that, and ever since then, that's how it's been.
“It just brings everybody together that we're all in it for sport, we're all in it for the same thing – and it doesn't matter, creed, gender, color, or anything.”
Dame Louise's period as the President of the Commonwealth Games Federation, a position she assumed in 2015, solidified her status as a pioneer in international sports governance. Her tenure has been marked by a commitment to inclusivity, unity, and the enduring spirit of the Commonwealth Sport family.
It has undoubtedly been a challenging year, but the Commonwealth Games still has an important role to play. A role that Dame Louise believes includes embracing its history as a force for good.
“Born out of the British Empire, we are very aware of our history. However, we are proud of our role in helping to bring together the nations and territories of the Commonwealth through sport, as friends and equals.
“But we also embrace the need to understand and acknowledge the legacy of the Empire on people’s lives throughout the Commonwealth and help to build a more positive future.”
Dame Louise would love to see the Games hosted in Africa and believes it is possible to minimise costs, while delivering a lasting legacy. She wants potential hosts to not focus on trying to outdo other events.
“Money is one the biggest challenges facing the sports industry and multi-sport events going forward.
“What we need to try and make sure everybody does when they are considering hosting an event like the Commonwealth Games is to innovate, think differently and not try to emulate what's gone before.
“Showcase your own country, the way that you live, and how happy your people are.
“Keep it simple.”
Her impact resonates not only in the realm of sports but also in her advocacy for education and community development. The Commonwealth Youth Games have gone from strength to strength under her watch with Trinidad and Tobago hosting a spectacular Youth Games in 2023.
Promoted to Dame Commander in the 2019 New Year Honours List, Dame Louise Martin will step down from her role as Commonwealth Games Federation President in November 2023.
Her legacy serves as an inspiration to aspiring athletes, administrators, and leaders worldwide. Through her transformative impact, Dame Louise has left an indelible mark on the world of sports, emphasising the enduring power of passion, perseverance, and family spirit.
Her advice to athletes competing in future Games is something that we all should all adhere to — no matter who or what we do.
“Stay true to yourself. You can only be what you can be. Don't try to be anything else because you'll fail.”