Lifetime Achievement Award is fitting tribute to Kyle


THE IRISH TIMES/IRISH SPORTS COUNCIL SPORTSWOMAN OF THE YEAR:How entirely and brilliantly fitting that after an Olympic and sporting year dominated by a woman, there was special recognition for the woman who helped pioneer it all, on so many levels, the unique and utterly incomparable Maeve Kyle.

How entirely fitting, too, that person to present her with the Lifetime Achievement Award yesterday was Ronnie Delany, who accompanied her on that maiden Olympic voyage of 1956.

It was there that Kyle became the first woman to represent Ireland at the Olympics, selected in both the 100 and 200 metres. Kyle has often told the story of how the news of her selection for Melbourne was greeted, perhaps best surmised, ironically enough, in a letter printed in this newspaper.

“I was a disgrace to motherhood and the Irish nation”, she proudly recalled. “That’s what one letter in The Irish Times said. Imagine! A woman leaving her husband and daughter to go and run!”

Now a sprightly 84, and still looking like she could sprint for Ireland, Kyle recalled with great humour her journey to Melbourne, with Delany: “It felt like months, and of course we partied the whole way.”

Yet there was a seriousness about what she was doing, even if some people felt she was a “monster”, or “doing something that no young woman should be doing, unless you were a naughty girl. But I suppose, yes, I went knocking on the door.”

Different sports

Her achievements didn’t stop there, and in fact she has packed several lifetimes worth of involvement in several different sports.

Born in Kilkenny, and later attending Trinity, her first love was hockey, where she gained 58 Irish caps and represented three of the four Irish provinces, Leinster, Munster and Ulster: she was also All Star team in 1953 and 1959.

As well as Melbourne, she also competed in the Rome Olympics in 1960 and in Tokyo in 1964, reaching the semi-finals of both the 400m and 800m, her preferred distance. She also took bronze in the 400m at the 1966 European Indoor Athletics Championships in Dortmund.

Her problem was that she could only run the 200m in 1956 because that was the farthest a woman was allowed to run on the track at the time.

Amazingly, her sporting prowess didn’t end there, as Kyle was equally deft at tennis, swimming, sailing and cricket. With her husband and coach Seán, she later co-founded the Ballymena and Antrim Athletic Club, originally designed as a women’s club, although soon had men on board too: Kyle wasn’t one for any sort of separatism.

In 2006, she was one of 10 players who were initially installed into Irish hockey’s Hall of Fame, and five years ago was awarded an OBE for her decades of involvement in sport. “So has achieved so many firsts,” noted Delany, “not forgetting the first Irish woman to set an indoor world record. Most of all she’s a dear friend, and a pleasure and privilege to know.”

Kyle struck a special chord with each of the monthly award winners too, Katie Taylor admitted, that she definitely “opened the door for women in sport,” and to share the same stage with her, even on this occasion, was a real privilege.

It was that sort of afternoon at the Shelbourne Hotel, a fitting end to a great sporting year, where among the guests were fellow Olympians John Treacy, chief executive of the Irish Sports Council and Senator Eamonn Coghlan, along with Pat Hickey, president of the Olympic Council of Ireland, Ciarán Ó Cathain, president of Athletics Ireland, and Minister of State for Sport, Michael Ring.

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