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