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Tide is rising but we are only at the beginning of a whole new ball game

Tommy Conlon


THECOUCH@INDEPENDENT.IE

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'There are plenty of exceptions, obviously, Serena Williams being the luminous example of her generation. Williams, and for a few years her sister Venus, revolutionised the appeal of women's tennis with their exhibitions of power and athletic
greatness.' Photo: Getty

'There are plenty of exceptions, obviously, Serena Williams being the luminous example of her generation. Williams, and for a few years her sister Venus, revolutionised the appeal of women's tennis with their exhibitions of power and athletic greatness.' Photo: Getty

Getty Images

'There are plenty of exceptions, obviously, Serena Williams being the luminous example of her generation. Williams, and for a few years her sister Venus, revolutionised the appeal of women's tennis with their exhibitions of power and athletic greatness.' Photo: Getty

Ten minutes into the women's international between Ireland and Greece last Thursday, one was visited by the sinking feeling that this would be a match to be endured rather than enjoyed.

And it wasn't the first time either that one felt we were watching a women's fixture more out of duty than expectation. The truth is, this is one sports fan who is so conditioned by a lifetime of watching male sport, that I instinctively judge the female version for not having the same vital ingredient. And that ingredient, in a nutshell, is physical prowess. Speed and power and general athletic virtuosity. There is drama inherent in speed and power; it goes to the heart of the attraction to sports. And naturally enough, the male domain has more of it on tap.

Even at last year's FIFA Women's World Cup finals, I found many of the games uninteresting for this specific reason. We take for granted the supreme speed and agility of top male footballers because ultimately it is not the point of the game; the point is what they do with the ball; their skill and technique with the ball is what usually decides the outcome. But if players do not have this high-functioning athletic capacity, they will be winnowed out of the system long before they get to the elite level. It is the foundation on which most professional careers are built, unless they are exceptionally pure ball players. When they get to the Premier League, or any other top-flight championship, it is assumed they've met the required physical standard. After that, most of the attention focuses on the standard of ball play in a given game.

But you miss it when it's not there. Or to be more accurate, when it's not there to the same degree. They say that comparisons are invidious in life but, as Eddie O'Sullivan has also said, you can't unring a bell either. You can't ignore what is branded in your brain, you can't deny what you've seen, you can't pretend you don't notice the gulf in physical prowess. This applies across the board, internationally and domestically, where camogie and women's Gaelic football also suffer by comparison to the physical drama contained in the male versions.

There are plenty of exceptions, obviously, Serena Williams being the luminous example of her generation. Williams, and for a few years her sister Venus, revolutionised the appeal of women's tennis with their exhibitions of power and athletic greatness. Martina Navratilova and Billie Jean King did likewise in previous generations. You were less inclined to make instinctive comparisons with the male game when these terrific athletes were on the court.

In this country, Sonia O'Sullivan was a magnificent sight in her prime. Cora Staunton in Gaelic football has been an absolute pioneer. The Cork sprinter Phil Healy is currently burning up the track here and abroad. Women's golf has been making rapid progress at the professional level and Leona Maguire from Cavan looks set to blaze a trail there after a glittering amateur career.

And of course you're not missing anything when watching Katie Taylor either: you forget about the power deficit when she is in the ring because, as has often been said about the champ, she hits like a man. One can hear the 'sexist' klaxon blaring even as I write this. But it is meant as a genuine compliment. Taylor hits like a man.

There aren't too many walks of life where one can say definitively that men are better than women, or would even want to say it, but sport is one of them. As women athletes get closer to the equivalent male standard, it means they are getting faster and stronger and therefore more appealing to a mainstream audience. And by mainstream audience, one doesn't just mean male viewers like me, but also a swathe of the female demographic that traditionally hasn't cared for sport but is becoming increasingly aware of the wonders their contemporary sisters are achieving in many different arenas.

With every passing year the talent pyramid in women's sport is getting higher, wider and deeper. But perhaps the great revolution is happening not at the top, but the base. It seems that participation among girls across the sporting spectrum is flourishing.

One hopes it is not a mirage. It appears to be a visible phenomenon in the culture of everyday life, in Ireland and elsewhere. Access, encouragement, education and support are hopefully readily available for every child and teen. Physical fitness is the most obvious personal dividend but parents, anecdotally at least, seem to be more alert to the emotional and social benefits that also come with sporting engagement for their daughters.

As it happens, my nieces, ranging in age from five to 18, are all doing something in their spare time, from hockey to basketball, camogie, rowing, swimming and dancing. It is a joy, to see the enjoyment they get from it: friends, teammates and days out; the crack and gossip at training; matches won, matches lost; the latest leisurewear, the shopping for new gear, watching the stars on telly - the whole nine yards. It is a world of its own. It used to be a boys' own world. It probably still is, and it certainly needs to be changing at a rate of knots now.

Ireland beat Greece 1-0 at Tallaght Stadium. No, it was not a good game. But it doesn't really matter. The tide is rising anyway. What is happening on the ground right now is much more important than what is happening at the top. We are still only at the beginning of a whole new ball game.

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