Friday 26 May 2017

Women can be superheroes too

Sport will throw up no more inspiring story this year than that of Michelle Payne, a woman who seems to have been overcoming the odds from the get-go
Sport will throw up no more inspiring story this year than that of Michelle Payne, a woman who seems to have been overcoming the odds from the get-go

Eamonn Sweeney

Michelle Payne's victory on Prince Of Penzance in the Melbourne Cup was like a Riot Grrrl version of National Velvet. If the unlikely nature of the triumph, the horse went off at 100/1, made this a particularly stirring story so did the post-race reaction of the 30-year-old jockey who declared, "It's such a chauvinistic sport, I know some of the owners were keen to kick me off Prince . . . I'd just like to say to everyone else to get stuffed if they think women aren't strong enough because we just beat the world."

It also confirmed that 2015 is a special year for women in sport. The miracle of Melbourne is just the latest straw in the wind which seems to confirm that a paradigm shift is taking place.

Sport will throw up no more inspiring story this year than that of Michelle Payne, a woman who seems to have been battling against the odds and overcoming them from the get-go. The youngest of ten children, she lost her mother Mary in a car crash at the age of just six months. Her sister Brigid died eight years ago of a heart attack connected to a fall from a horse which had left her in a coma just six months previously. Her brother Stephen has Down Syndrome yet that hasn't stopped him looking after Prince Of Penzance for trainer Darren Weir. He sent his sister on to the track on Tuesday with the words, "Don't get beat, I've got my money on you."

The road to this victory began when Payne rode her first winner at the age of 15 for her trainer father Paddy. It has also encompassed some pretty hard knocks including a fractured skull and bruised brain after a fall at Sandown when she was just 18. Yet she battled on to land the latest and perhaps most spectacular blow against sporting sexism in a year full of them. That Max Dynamite, half a length behind in second place, was trained by Willie Mullins and ridden by Frankie Dettori shows the magnitude of her achievement.

Yet she owed her place aboard the horse, which she'd ridden on 22 of its previous 23 starts, to pure luck. The two members of the syndicate who disagreed about the wisdom of having her on board tossed a coin to decide who'd get to choose the jockey and who'd get to choose the colours. Payne's, and the syndicate's, luck was in but it was understandable that sexism was very much on her mind as she declared, "I feel that a lot of the time I get taken off because they say she couldn't get out or whatever, then the guys get on and do the same and they say, 'He was unlucky, he couldn't get out'. That just drives me crazy. A lot of the time I'm more dedicated than some of those guys are because you get less opportunities as a woman."

Giving the victory at Flemington an extra frisson was the fact that horse racing is one of very few sports where men and women compete against each other. And Payne's isn't the first major female victory of note. Back in April Katie Walsh rode Thunder And Roses to victory in the Irish Grand National, becoming the third female winner after Nina Carberry in 2011 and Anne Ferris, the amateur rider whose 1984 win on Bentom Boy is a seriously overlooked breakthrough which might profitably be revisited given the week that's in it.

On the Flat, Julie Krone, perhaps the greatest female jockey of all, was winning the Belmont Stakes, leg three of the American Triple Crown, as far back as 1993. Her heiress is Rosie Napravnik who at the age of 27 has twice won the Kentucky Oaks and been in the top ten earning American jockeys three times yet has still encountered trainers and owners who won't hire a woman, harassment from male jockeys and sexist heckling from spectators.

Given all this, it's likely that women jockeys have actually been held back from achieving a great deal more by antiquated attitudes.

It's interesting to look at equestrianism where there hasn't been such a bias against women riders. Right now there are two women, America's Beezie Madden and France's Penelope Leprevost, in the top four of showjumping's world rankings while eight of the top 20 slots in eventing are held by women, among them world champion Sandra Auffarth of Germany. And at the London Olympics a majority of the individual medals in dressage, eventing and showjumping, five out of nine, were won by women.

Yet none of these achievements seemed so in tune with the zeitgeist as Payne's victory. And that may well be because 2015 seems such a signal year for women in sport.

Here in Ireland we've had a second Six Nations triumph in three years for the rugby team, Cork winning a football final whose 33,000 attendance made it the best attended female sporting event in Europe, the aforementioned Fairyhouse victory for Katie Walsh, Katie Taylor's European Games title, Christine McMahon becoming the first Irish woman to win a world professional boxing title and Stephanie Roche bringing the profile of women's soccer to a new height. Róisín Jordan in Tyrone has become the first woman to be made chairpersonn of a GAA county board and Helen O'Reilly, the first woman to referee a men's All-Ireland League rugby match. There's also been the news that the 2017 Rugby World Cup will be played in Ireland, something which should raise awareness of women's sport among the general public considerably.

There have been firsts elsewhere too. Stateside, Becky Hammon became the first female coach in the NBA when she was hired by the San Antonio Spurs, while Jen Welter's brief stint with the Arizona Cardinals will earn her a place in the NFL history books. The irresistible rise of Ronda Rousey, who has become MMA's biggest star (yes, even bigger than your man) continues as does her very deliberate attempt to subvert stereotypes of what a female sports star should be. Meanwhile, Serena Williams was perhaps the outstanding sporting figure of the year, winning three Grand Slam titles before coming unstuck in the semi-final of the US Open.

Across the water, the odds are that Jessica Ennis-Hill will become the first woman since Zara Phillips in 2006 to win the BBC Sports Personality of the Year. But Ennis-Hill's return to win the world heptathlon championships after missing 2014 due to pregnancy is only part of what makes her so impressive. Sheffield United, the club she's supported since she was a kid, named a stand after her when she won the 2012 Olympic title but when Ennis-Hill heard they were considering signing convicted rapist Ched Evans she asked that her name be removed from the stand if they did so.

The club didn't sign Evans but a few months later announced they were going to remove her name anyway and replace it with that of an estate agents who'd provided the club with sponsorship money. Draw your own conclusions.

What Ennis-Hill's intervention showed was the value of having a high profile female athlete willing to speak out on the issue, the silence of top footballers creating an unfortunate impression that if the game was not exactly in collusion with rape culture, it certainly didn't have any great problems with it.

The picture isn't entirely rosy. There are, for example, only two women in sport's top 100 earners. But in a world where Jennifer Lawrence gets paid less than her male co-stars, where the Abbey Theatre has announced an almost entirely male programme for the centenary of 1916 and where many of our politicians seem utterly relaxed about women having to go abroad for abortions, sport is simply mirroring society.

But things are getting better in sport. And that's good news not just for women but also for those of us who happen to be related to them. Because a sporting landscape where the tired old sexism of yore is gradually decommissioned is as potentially liberating for men as it is for women.

Roll on the day when, in the words of Lyn Savage, Ladies Gaelic Football Association national development officer, "the ideal scenario is that there's no such thing as women in sport. It's just sport." Or in the words of one of the most ardent feminists I know, "They shouldn't be making a big deal about having a woman superhero in a film, dad, because women can be superheroes just the same as men."

We're getting there.

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