Paying lip service is simply not good enough anymore
Published 27/04/2015 | 02:30
It's time to scratch the surface of women's sport in Ireland. Look past the glory of Katie Taylor's heroics in the ring, the glamour of Stephanie Roche's wonder goal and the gloss that comes with the Irish women winning the Six Nations and examine what lies beneath.
Last Christmas I went to Kerry to speak to Marina Barry ahead of the launch of the Women's GPA. She won 10 All-Ireland medals during the 1970s and 80s. I wanted to hear about the inter-county scene back then and the sacrifices she made to reach the top.
She told me about the lack of pitches or hot showers. How they received no expenses, no meals after training, no support at games and little recognition for what they achieved. They often changed on the side of the road, didn't always have access to toilets and there was definitely no team gear. That was Ireland in the 1980s - I didn't expect much more.
When the Women's GPA was launched in January, the new association published a booklet revealing some stark statistics about the conditions players have to endure.
They surveyed 600 female players and the information they collated is truly staggering. Only seven per cent were in receipt of travelling expenses for training, only a third have access to regular hot showers afterwards, and almost two thirds have been left out of pocket due to county commitments, particularly due to injury. This is Ireland in 2015 - I expected a whole lot more.
Sportswomen around the country are regularly travelling for hours to games, playing on substandard pitches and travelling home in wet and dirty gear. They don't get food and they don't get a few bob for petrol.
Recently, camogie Ard Stiúrthóir Joan O'Flynn revealed that the association had contacted 31 different clubs and counties in an attempt to secure a venue for last year's All-Ireland Club Intermediate semi-final between Lismore and Liatroim Fontenoys of Down. The match was ultimately postponed for a week, negating any promotion or marketing of it. This was a game that over 40 women had trained hard to qualify for and one they made a lot of sacrifices for along the way.
The lack of pitches isn't just an issue for camogie, women's teams across all sports are being forced to beg for a patch grass or a hall so their girls can play.
It's hard to believe our most prominent and successful boxer Katie Taylor had to train without a toilet in her gym despite being a world champion.
In her annual report, O'Flynn also revealed attendances at the All-Ireland camogie final have fallen annually since 2009 when the practice of playing alongside the U21 hurling final was ended. In 2010, 17,280 turned up for the camogie finals and 12,476 attended in 2014.
And while those figures are worrying, what's of more concern is the fact market research commissioned by the Camogie Association last summer showed that little over a quarter of hurling supporters had previously attended an inter-county camogie championship game.
Of course none of these issues are a secret - anyone with a passing interest in women's sport would tell you about the challenging conditions women have to endure to play sport, despite there being a big interest nationally when things go well.
This goes for the Ireland women's rugby team too. Even though they are Six Nations champions they are no better off than most women's teams out there.
They play in front of small crowds in less than glamorous grounds, playing at the likes of the Aviva Stadium last year was the exception, not the norm.
In 2012 when they missed their connecting train from Paris to Pau, they had to catch a freight train and had cattle for company for their seven-hour trip.
They reached Pau - which is served by two airports - at 7.0am, played their match at 2.30, lost by two points, and flew home.
Fast forward three years to early 2015, they had a Six Nations title under their belts and were bidding for another when the lights went out in one of their biggest games of the year in Ashbourne.
Add in the fact that even though their coach from last year, Philip Doyle, informed the union in March he would be stepping down, it took the IRFU until December to replace him.
They won the Six Nations again this year but the question must be asked, can success force change for women? It got Katie Taylor a new toilet but is she being treated as well as she could be?
It's easy to talk about the issues surrounding the treatment of our sportswomen, finding ways to make it better is the challenge.
With more and more success stories in women's sport, the momentum is building but that must bring change or else another 20 years will pass and the reality will remain the same.
In 2013, the British government established a Women and Sport Advisory Board. Their aim is to engage more strategically with the sectors that influence the sporting landscape. They meet quarterly to share ideas about strategies for furthering the Women and Sport agenda. The 'This Girl Can' campaign video was the result of this and they have bigger plans ahead. Isn't it time for something like this in Ireland, where change can be measured and results seen?
The WGPA have stated that collaboration with other sports is a clear part of what they want to do and their chairperson Aoife Lane has met with Minister for Equality Aodhán Ó Ríordán to discuss her vision for the future of women's sport and the importance of political will and support in order to facilitate change. It's a step in the right direction but it needs to be much more than that.
Hearing people say they are going to go to a women's soccer game after seeing Stephanie Roche's goal just doesn't cut it anymore.
Women deserve better. It's time for change.
My top 10 of the las 50 years
Mary Peters (Athletics)
Sonia O'Sullivan (Athletics)
Katie Taylor (Boxing)
Angela Downey (Camogie)
Cora Staunton (Gaelic football)
Derval O'Rourke (Athletics)
Niamh Briggs (Rugby)
Nina Carberry (Horse racing)
Briege Corkery (Gaelic football)
Nikki Symmonds (Hockey)