Saturday 24 August 2019

'There's an awful long way to go'

On international women's day, some of Ireland's most prominent female athletes address the need for equality

Olympic finalist Sara Treacy was inspired by Sonia O'Sullivan and Catherina McKiernan Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile
Olympic finalist Sara Treacy was inspired by Sonia O'Sullivan and Catherina McKiernan Photo: Brendan Moran/Sportsfile

Cathal Dennehy

Question: out of men and women, young and old, who is the most likely to watch women's sport in Ireland?

You'd think it might be younger women, the peers of international stars like Katie Taylor and Stephanie Roche, but in fact it's the opposite. Research has revealed that men over 55 have the highest interest in women's sport here, with 57pc calling themselves supporters.

Sarah Rowe Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile
Sarah Rowe Photo: David Fitzgerald/Sportsfile

Just one in three Irish women put themselves in the same camp, a figure that drops off significantly as you progress to a younger audience.

But why? Is it that they just don't know about women's sport... or they simply don't care?

For Sara Treacy, an Olympic finalist in the 3000m steeplechase, the lack of coverage is the biggest problem.

"I don't ever remember reading about women's sport when I was growing up, except for Sonia O'Sullivan and Catherina McKiernan," she said. "Because of that, a lot of girls were brought up thinking it's not for them."

Jessie Barr Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile
Jessie Barr Photo: Sam Barnes/Sportsfile

Treacy, 28, believes the media have a case to answer for the discrepancy in coverage.

"It's pages and pages about the same sports, same players. You very rarely read about Leona Maguire, for example, but if she was a male golfer she'd be all over the papers. There are still days when you open the paper and there's not a single article on women's sports. How is that possible?"

Sinéad Kissane, an Irish Independent columnist and TV3 sports presenter, is well placed to explain: "In the media the debate is if people don't want it, should we still give it coverage? But men's sporting organisations have been around a lot longer and as a result, women's sport is still operating a few paces behind."

When it comes to promotion, Kissane believes more coverage is needed to develop interest: "I think you need to find a balance and women's sport still needs to be pushed because it's operating behind. There's a responsibility to promote it, rather than only going off what people want."

Sophie Spence Photo: Cody Glenn/Sportsfile
Sophie Spence Photo: Cody Glenn/Sportsfile

Perhaps the best solution, then, is to give people what they think they don't want until such a time as they do. Irish rugby international Sophie Spence believes the games themselves and their promotion have to get better: "Men's sport is regularly shown on TV and many are not aware when women's sport is shown. Coverage is improving but to go further performances have to keep improving too."

She cites the example of last year's All-Ireland ladies football final, which drew more than 46,000 to Croke Park. Two players involved in that - Mayo's Sarah Rowe and Dublin's Lauren Magee - hold similar views to Spence.

"The skills are there, the fitness is there and there are great players all over the country," says Magee. "Running out for that final and seeing the Cusack Stand filled was amazing. People are only just starting to realise it's good football and we can provide great entertainment."

A huge leap forward was made this year with several double-headers arranged in the men's and ladies' football leagues, which Rowe (left) believes is the way forward. "It's brilliant," she says. "Some people don't give ladies football a chance but when they watch it they see the standard is good. It's not the same as men's but it's still a very good standard."

Rachael Blackmore Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile
Rachael Blackmore Photo: Piaras Ó Mídheach/Sportsfile

In that final line, Rowe hints at a comparison that makes many dismiss women's sport before even tuning in - that the skill, speed and power on show is simply not on par with the men's equivalent so less worthy of their time. But for 2012 Olympian Jessie Barr, that's not a legitimate reason to dismiss women's sport.

"You'd never say that about the men's and women's 100 metres, so it's not a fair comparison to make in rugby or GAA," she says. "In athletics we're lucky that the two are held at the same time so the interest is the same."

Barr believes huge progress has been made in recent years but that true equality is still a long way off. "It is very slow, but slow is better than nothing," she says. "We're not going to be equal anytime soon but if we can move towards it, we should."

One who has proven herself capable of competing with - and beating - the best men in her profession is Rachael Blackmore, who last year became the first female rider to win the Irish conditional jockeys' title.

"I've never really encountered much inequality in racing," she says. "It's never been a hindrance to be a girl. Nina Carberry and Katie Walsh were the two big stars when I started and their success helped me to avoid any stigma.

"If you're good enough, you'll get the chances in racing and that's the way it's been since I started."

An example to other professions, perhaps, although what all those contacted for this story agreed upon is that the tide is turning, however slowly.

Perhaps the most accurate vista is supplied in a simple line from Treacy, true far beyond the world of sport: "It's definitely improving, but there's an awful long way to go."

Irish Independent

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