Saturday 21 October 2017

Tommy Conlon: Sport needs more girls, women and ladies because it's all about participation

The Couch

'The essential point is that it is not about standards, it is about participation. Sport needs more girls, women and ladies, irrespective of the yeses, the nos or the maybes.' Ciara Griffin of Ireland celebrates with team mate Cliodhna Moloney after scoring her sides second try during the 2017 Women's Rugby World Cup. Photo: Sportsfile
'The essential point is that it is not about standards, it is about participation. Sport needs more girls, women and ladies, irrespective of the yeses, the nos or the maybes.' Ciara Griffin of Ireland celebrates with team mate Cliodhna Moloney after scoring her sides second try during the 2017 Women's Rugby World Cup. Photo: Sportsfile

Tommy Conlon

In rugby they are women and in the GAA they are ladies. When talking about their own team-mates, they will often refer to them as "the girls". Thus proving once again the lonesome wisdom of that country 'n' western ballad which told us that "There's girls and there's women and there's ladies". (Not forgetting its other, equally rueful, anthropological insight: "There's yeses and nos and there's maybes.")

It is only relatively recently, perhaps as late as the 1970s or '80s, that the Western world has said yes to the idea of mass participation in female sport, a century more or less since organised sport for men began to spread like wildfire.

With such deeply-embedded resistance in the culture, the campaign for popular acceptance was never going to have a neat and definitive ending. Progress across the globe has been enormous in some places and almost non-existent in others. It is a piecemeal evolution, a jigsaw with bare patches scattered all over the board.

Now, anyone with even a fraction more intelligence than prejudice can appreciate the benefits of this upwards trend. And anyone who understands that sport can be a powerful engine for social justice, knows that gender equality here can have a pioneering influence in other societal domains. It is an important issue, not just for sport itself but the wider world.

One could argue therefore that the single best development in sport over the last 30 years, bar none, is the quantum leap in female participation, as athletes and fans, and laterally in media and administration too.

It is an unalloyed pleasure to see women athletes enjoying the one central privilege that has been available to their male counterparts for over 100 years: namely, self-expression. The freedom to express oneself in purely physical terms. It is basically the liberation of the body; being able to express oneself physically, as opposed to verbally, intellectually, emotionally. Organised sport essentially gives everyone permission to run and throw and kick and jump until the body has been exhausted and thereby renewed.

The more one thinks about it, the more stupid it seems that women were denied this fundamental form of liberation for so long. Self-expression is a precursor to self-confidence. Deny people one and it denies them the other.

It is well-documented that participation in sport fuels personal well-being, psychological as well as physical. It is a driver for social confidence too. Even individual sports are co-operative enterprises. And team sports often function as surrogate families for their members. A dressing room operates at many levels, but for many it is a cocoon, a safe place, a sanctuary of friendship and support.

The dividends don't end there. A team player or an individual athlete will usually have a goal in mind, a target, an achievement to which they aspire. It will require months, years of training and preparation. Therefore he or she has a structure to their week, every week; they have stability and purpose. If the rest of their lives aren't working out for them, professionally or academically or personally, they always have their sporting outlet as a source of hope and meaning. For people in their teens and 20s particularly, who still haven't found their path in life, their sport, the dressing room, can be a crucial safety net.

For far too long, men only had access to this nurturing environment. Obviously, the more women who are encouraged to discover it, the better for everyone. But it has never seemed more urgent that they do, given the contemporary concern among parents for the well-being of their daughters in this, the era of saturation sexualisation.

There are many more qualified students of the issue than this male sportswriter. And these experts are seriously alarmed by the rising tide of image-anxiety among girls and young women. They say there is an epidemic of insecurity, brought on, at least in part, by an objectification of the female form that has become nigh ubiquitous.

The role model du jour is thin and pretty, passive and barely clothed. We're not just talking billboards, magazines, television and other mass marketing machinery. Social media, of course, has taken this pernicious message into the private consciousness of every teenager with a computer or mobile phone. There is also a concomitant rise in body-shaming among boys and young men too.

It would be facile to say that kicking a football or running around a track will solve a problem of this scale. For starters, in every generation there is a swathe of the male and female population who seemingly are just not wired for sport. It is just not for them. It is a strange world of bizarre behaviour and somewhat intimidating practices.

But for those parents who can get their children to join a team of any sort, there is the hope that it will open a pathway to a healthy adolescence and adulthood - for boys and girls.

And yes, it is valid to say that there is a gulf in standard between the male and female versions of shared sports. There is a deficit in basic power and speed that will always remain. But if comparisons are inevitable, they are also superfluous, a bit like comparing a welterweight boxer to a heavyweight.

The essential point is that it is not about standards, it is about participation. Sport needs more girls, women and ladies, irrespective of the yeses, the nos or the maybes.

thecouch@independent.ie

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