Saturday 25 May 2019

Ewan McKenna: An inconvenient truth: Attendance ranks above rhetoric in sport

We may talk up women's achievements in sport but will we actually show up for the games

The world record holder for the women's 100m and 200m, Florence Griffith-Joyner
The world record holder for the women's 100m and 200m, Florence Griffith-Joyner
The world's fastest man Usain Bolt

Ewan McKenna

The saying goes that if you see a bandwagon, it's too late.

Of course it's not completely true and there are upsides. Take Monday, as a glance down Dame Street saw a deserved crowd turn out to welcome home Ireland's hockey team. But don't conflate this with meaningful support either for it didn't so much highlight the interest, it masked it.

This was event-junkie stuff that brought about demands for more public money based on misinformation around the team paying their own way to the World Cup, when their union has been given €900,000 this year via the taxpayer, with €625,000 of that for high-performance alone.

But there was another angle - and it's telling that in sport it's often those who want to complain about discrimination that bring gender into a realm where it shouldn't and doesn't matter.

Your sex has nothing to do with taxpayer funding of high-end sport in Ireland. All that counts is ability, commitment and the likelihood of delivering.

The truth is there is a small but telling societal guilt around our engagement in female sport, and we use a victory parade or a well-attended once-a-year game of women's football to say we did our bit. But be honest.

When was the last time anyone watched a hockey game before this tournament? When will be the next time you watch one? And have you any plans to actually attend one? Admit it.

We've been down this well-worn path before, thinking our words can mask our lack of action. Back in April 2017, we got all hot and bothered when the women's soccer team threatened to strike due to their treatment by the FAI, yet a week later, only 1,037 went out to watch them in a home World Cup qualifier.

We told ourselves that the women's Rugby World Cup was a great success and accepted platitudes in the mirror, but to drill down showed an opening game for the hosts played in a field in UCD as Lansdowne Road would have been empty. And then there's Katie Taylor, who sadly is the best example of the cheap and cheesy our-girl rhetoric.

For instance how often did you hear it said that the woman she beat last month managed to reach the level of a world-title fight while working as an estate agent, co-owning a business called Scalded Dog Trucking, and helping in her family's building company?

It's a microcosm of the avoidance of telling the truth in women's sport, and of patronising rather than scrutinising.

Those thrown in with Taylor also shows this up as an international issue. When comparing the structures around much of men's and women's sport, it's important to remember the majority of money is private, and that's when this becomes the entertainment industry.

Within that, people want to see the best and it's there that men have both an unfair advantage as well as a natural advantage.

Firstly, due to past sexism in society, male athletes had a head-start, and now that we've reached a stage with sport being so profitable, the chasm in support is both increasing and cemented.

There is also the basic physiology too and in an arena where customers want faster, higher, longer, stronger, why watch Griffith-Joyner's 10.49 seconds when you can have Bolt's 9.59? Why watch Kostadinova's 2.09 metres when you can have Sotomayor's 2.45? Why watch Chistyakova 7.52 metres, when you can have Powell's 8.95? Why watch Spotáková's 72.28 metres when you can have Zelezny's 98.48? Of course you don't, as audiences through to sponsorship and backing all go to prove.

It's not a convenient truth so people shoot the messenger because they don't like this message. That's easy, which is the modern way.

To actually change it, however, would involve getting up, going out, buying a ticket, watching a game... And you've no interest in that.


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