Netwerk24’s Sports Editor, Marizanne Kok, loves telling personal stories about sports stars who continuously overcome adversity to reach incredible heights in their respective sporting codes.
Kok has been making strides in sports journalism for more than a decade and has won various media awards including the SAB Sports News Writer of the Year in 2018 which showed her versatility as a sports writer.
From all the accolades, the one award that stands out for her is her most recent – the Woman in Print recognition at the 2020 Momentum gsport Awards.
Kok found out about the gsport initiative thirteen years ago, at the start of her career, and has been longing to win an award on the gsport stage, which eventually came her way this year.
The Sports Editor was among 27 women in sport who received recognition at the 15th edition of the longest running women’s sport awards platform in the country.
With ample experience under her belt, the Sasolburg-born go-getter is eager to pave the way for future female sports journalists, but where did it all start for her? Celine Abrahams finds out!
Marizanne, you bagged the Woman in Print Award at the 2020 Momentum gsport Awards. How did it feel getting this recognition on the gsport stage?
I would be lying if I said a Momentum gsport Award wasn’t on my wish list – it has been for many years! When you write in Afrikaans, like I have for the whole of my career, you sometimes wonder if your work is noticed and has an impact outside that community. You always hope it does, but I suppose it’s only recognition like this, from people outside my publications’ target market, that confirms it.
“gsport’s focus has always been to shine a spotlight on South African women who dream big and excel in SA sports, and while my own focus isn’t exclusively on women, I also believe in the power of telling the inspirational stories that are so littered across South African sports.” – 2020 Momentum gsport Awards Woman in Print winner, Marizanne Kok
That is the real reason why I’ve been drifting on cloud nine a bit since the ceremony. Yes, you guys made me look really pretty and yes, you made all of us feel super special on the night – but more than that gsport has shown me I am on the right track. gsport’s focus has always been to shine a spotlight on South African women who dream big and excel in SA sports, and while my own focus isn’t exclusively on women, I also believe in the power of telling the inspirational stories that are so littered across South African sports.
The fact that an organisation that has been doing that for many years has recognised my efforts, has in turn inspired me to keep doing what I’m doing, and doing an even better job of it.
When was the first time you heard about the gsport initiative?
I remember gsport recognised a Woman in Print monthly when I first started out as a sports journalist in 2007, and I thought it would be really cool to establish myself and eventually also catch gsport’s eye. I think 23-year-old me would have been disgusted to hear it would take 13 years for that to happen, but the way I see it things happen when and how they’re meant to. No doubt I appreciate it more now than I would have a decade or more ago, because I understand the significance of it so much better.
What are your views on how the initiative has evolved over the years?
It is wonderful to look back at the number of women who were recognised at the first awards and compare it with the long list of today. I think the real magic in what gsport is doing, is that it doesn’t only shine a light on those ladies who excel on the field, but also those behind the scenes. The administrators, the sponsors, the supporters, the volunteers… no sport can truly bloom without those people.
For me personally, being recognised by gsport is petrol in the tank for the next part of my journey, and I’m convinced it’s that way for every woman who has ever received a Momentum gsport award. That motivation to keep going is crucial to take sports forward.
We’re glad to hear winning the award has impacted your outlook on your career! Let us take a step back and find out what your life was like growing up.
I had a very normal childhood growing up in Sasolburg in the Northern Free State as the eldest of two (my sister is two years younger than me). I remember Sunday braais on the banks of the Vaal and a childhood filled with books and lots of reading. I could read by the time I went to Grade 1, so I suppose I was always destined to earn my living with words.
When did your passion for sports and writing begin?
The Rugby World Cup of 1995 was my first introduction to the power of sport, and within a few years I had become a bit obsessed with sport. I will always remember 1999 for those dreadful semifinals at cricket and rugby’s World Cups, it truly broke my heart.
“At school writing was just something I did because I had to. It wasn’t one of my big passions until I was around 21. But reading was.” – Kok on growing up an avid reader.
At school writing was just something I did because I had to. It wasn’t one of my big passions until I was around 21. But reading was. I always nagged my dad to buy the Rapport on a Sunday and went to the shops every Monday to buy the Huisgenoot, especially in a week when I had finished all my library books.
Newspapers fascinated me, and despite not feeling particularly passionate about writing I was on the editorial staff of my high school paper, my Koshuis paper in Potchefstroom and eventually the campus paper. I didn’t notice it until years later, but I always ended up writing sports, without specifically asking to. Even becoming a sports writer happened because a gap opened up in Rapport’s sports department just as my internship at the paper was ending, rather than me applying to write sports. It was clearly just meant to be.
How did you get into the media industry?
I went to Potchefstroom to study Business Mathematics because I was obsessed with Maths when I left school, but by my third-year, sums and formulas had lost its appeal for me.
In the middle of that year I joined the editorial staff of the campus newspaper, Wapad. My very first article was about a summer hockey match and was used as the lead on the backpage. I got a bigger kick out of seeing that than anything had ever given me.
That’s when I realised that I needed to write for the rest of my life, and after a quick Google search, I found Wits had a one-year Honours Degree in journalism for people with any B-degree. It was perfect for me, and it made my parents very happy that I at least had something that forced me to finish my degree in Potch, rather than waste three years of tuition.
I joined the Wits programme in February 2006 and stayed to do an internship at the campus paper, Vuvuzela, for the first four months of 2007. By May a position as intern had opened up at Rapport, and by September I was appointed full-time in the sports department.
Do you remember the first interview that you conducted?
I don’t remember the very first one, but I recall interviews being daunting for a really long time. I was quite shy and would be embarrassed if I forgot what I wanted to ask or ran out of things to say.
When I was appointed in the sports office, the first interview I was told to do was with Ernie Els, of all people, over the phone! So, I stressed about that the whole day until I could call him at whatever time of night we had agreed (he was in the US).
It worked out well, he had really nice things to say about the article and the next year agreed for me to interview him in Scotland about his son’s autism. But I honestly didn’t enjoy interviews until years into my career, when I had realised the best interviews are really just informal chats with a pen in my hand or a recorder on the table.
You have won a number of media awards in your trophy cabinet, which ones stand out for you?
The first time I won at SAB’s Sport Media Awards, in 2017, was huge for me. I’d had a good year and wrote a bunch of profile articles that I was really proud of, but I still thought I’m not yet good enough to win an SAB. That award changed how I viewed myself as a sports journalist – I finally felt I could bark with the big dogs, so to speak.
That year I was named the Feature Writer of the Year and was told I was the first woman to win that specific award in a decade.
The second SAB I won a year later was also really special, because it was for Sports News Writer of the Year and showed my versatility.
“Both the 2019 awards were massive surprises, but also erased the last crumbs of self-doubt I was still carrying around.” – Kok on how winning awards erased her self-doubt being in the sports industry.
Then in 2019, I won Media24’s Legends Award as Sports Journalist of the Year for the third year in a row and again won SAB’s News award. Both the 2019 awards were massive surprises, but also erased the last crumbs of self-doubt I was still carrying around.
What have been some of your biggest challenges, especially being a female Sports Editor?
I’ve been really lucky to work with people who see me as a capable journalist first, rather than a woman. I remember only one person ever putting me in the ‘female box’ – an editor who years ago told me something to the effect of: “As long as I’m in charge here, no woman will write rugby.”
And yet I eventually did write rugby – well enough for even him to change his mind about what women should be doing, because I refused to accept the stupid idea that women in sports departments should stick to the smaller sports.
The way I see it, at its core all sports are the same: it’s a bunch of people competing to see who’s the best, and the emotions and motivation involved are the same in every sport. And let’s face it: sports are emotional, for those who practice it and for those who watch it or read about it. If you as a writer can convey an emotional account in one sport, you can convey it in all sports – regardless of your gender.
In my role as Sports Editor, as in my role as a journalist, I simply let my work speak for itself. I figure if you write better headlines than anyone else, rewrite copy better than anyone else and keep picking the best available pictures, nobody will care what gender you are, so that was the game plan from the beginning. It worked, I think.
Having ample experience under your belt, what advice would you give to young girls who aspire to be sports journalists?
If sport is your passion, go for it! Don’t let anyone tell you some beats are off limits because you’re a woman – you’re a human being with a brain and ambitions and ideas first.
Also, I would tell anyone who dreams of sports journalism to appreciate the unique opportunities it gives you. We are in a very different world than crime or political writers. In sports we are surrounded by people who dare to dream and dare to make their dreams come true – and we have the honour of telling their inspiring stories and remind people what is possible for those who choose to work hard.
What are you still aiming to achieve in your career?
Just to keep telling the stories of South African sports people to the best of my ability. There’s a lot of nonsense in sports too, with more and more administrators unmasked as charlatans and money grabbers, and we should of course tell those stories. But the articles I enjoyed writing most are the personal ones about people overcoming adversity to reach the top of their sport. There will always be stories like that, and I hope to be writing them for a long time to come.