An Olympic suffragette: 'I was seen to be off gallivanting in a foreign land'

Sat, Aug 11, 2012, 01:00

THE 16-YEAR-OLD Saudi judoka Wojdan Shaherkani was labelled the “Prostitute of the Olympics” on Twitter for having the temerity to compete at the London Olympics. The 23-year-old Afghan 100-metres runner Tahmina Kohstani, who also competed in London, had to run a daily gauntlet of abusive taunts during her training sessions in Kabul, with men shouting at her to “Just be in your house”, and “Be behind your man”.

One Irishwoman knows exactly what these athletes are going through.

When Maeve Kyle, who is originally from Kilkenny, was selected to be Ireland’s first female Olympic athlete, running at the 1956 Games in Melbourne, a letter to the editor published in The Irish Times in September of that year strongly condemned her selection. “A sports field is no place for a woman,” it stated. Selecting a woman to represent Ireland at the Olympics was “most unbecoming, unseemly and degrading of womenfolk, It must not be countenanced on any grounds.” The writer identified themselves only as “Vox Populi”.

“People forget what it was like for Irish women in sports back then. It was really similar to how the Taliban now view Muslim women athletes,” says Kyle, now aged 84 and living in Ballymena, Co Antrim. Not only was Kyle a pioneer among Irish sporting women, she had a distinguished career, representing her country at three Olympic Games – Melbourne, Rome and Tokyo – and winning a bronze medal at the inaugural European Indoor Athletics Championships in Dortmund, in 1966.

But there was no Katie Taylor-style adulation for Kyle. Apart from being labelled “degrading to womenfolk”, she also had to put up with daily abuse while out training in Ballymena, where she moved after getting married in the early 1950s.

“I worked as a teacher and had a two-year-old daughter when I was selected for the Melbourne Olympics,” she says. “In the precious little time I had to get out training, I used to be passed by a bus carrying the workers from a local factory. They would wind down the window and shout out really obscene abuse at me. And I actually had objects thrown at me while I was out training. People would come up to the field I trained on and throw things at me. I really do appreciate what these Muslim women go through in their homelands in preparation for the Olympics. Ireland really was a dark place back then for any woman in any sport.”

Still busy at the Ballymena and Antrim Athletics Club, Kyle has met Katie Taylor many times. “Katie always tells me that I was the first, I was the trailblazer and the inspiration for Irish women in sports,” she says. “It’s a wonderful thing that Katie can train and compete in a very different world to the one I experienced.”

Kyle was wise enough to laugh off all the criticism she attracted for her selection for Melbourne. “I grew up here so I knew just how uncomfortable a lot of people were with a woman being selected to compete for Ireland,” she says. “And it wasn’t just that I was a woman, it was also because I was a married woman with a two-year-old daughter who was seen to be off gallivanting in a foreign land while I left my husband and child at home. I was an athletic suffragette, I suppose.”

While Taylor would have had the best possible preparation for these Games, never mind the best wishes of a nation behind her, Kyle remembers that the letter she received from the Irish Olympic Council notifying her of her selection came with a bill for £200 to pay for her passage to Australia.

“That was an awful lot of money I had to find to ensure my place,” she says. “To put it in context, the year [before that, 1955] myself and my husband Seán had bought our first house and it cost £2,000. So I really had to scrape around to find the money and had to organise fundraising events to make the total.”

It took three weeks for Kyle to travel from Dublin to Melbourne.

“There were only a few of us on the Irish team that year. We went via New York, San Francisco and Fiji. There were no physios, no nutritionists, no nobody with us. We had to look after ourselves. But I loved it: I was so excited to be representing my country. And we got to eat ice cream while in San Francisco.”

Gender was still weighing unfairly against her, however. Kyle ran in the 100 metres and 200 metres at Melbourne and then in Rome in 1960. Her best events were the 400 metres and 800 metres, and she got through the semi-finals of both in the 1964 Tokyo Games. But there were no 400 metres or 800 metres for women at the Melbourne Games. “I think they thought women would need resuscitation if we ran any farther than 200 metres,” she says. “I was in the stadium, though, when Ronnie Delaney won his gold medal and that was an incredible moment for all of us on the Irish team who had travelled all the way.”

In the great roll-call of Irish women sporting greats, you rarely hear the name of Maeve Kyle, but when Katie Taylor and others in the know acknowledge her huge importance, and when you consider the abuse she received for the barriers she single-handedly broke down for Irish women in sports, you realise that this sprightly 84-year-old really should be honoured by a country that all but ignored her achievement.

“What really needs to be stressed here is that I was so proud to be the first Irish woman athlete to compete at an Olympic Games,” she says.

“The criticism, the letters in the papers, the abuse I got while out training: I laughed it off, as did my coach [who is also her husband], and my family. When I got that historic first selection, it was such an honour for me as an Irish woman. And it remains so today.”

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