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Women in sport: Despite increased success, high visibility belongs to just a few

Things are getting better for sportswomen but not fast enough

This was a week of doffing the cap. It was chapeau to the women in sport. It was about momentarily standing still and looking back. An end of year juncture to reflect and observe the breadth of the sport that had taken place over the 12 months of 2022.

RTÉ screened their sports awards last weekend, while The Irish Times and Sport Ireland held their annual 2022 Sportswoman of the Year on Tuesday, when European and World Champion boxer Amy Broadhurst walked away with the biggest smile.

It was, as it always has been, the intention when the award was instituted almost two decades ago to celebrate the achievements of Irish women in sport, born out of a recognition and awareness that women involved in the industry were getting a raw deal.

During this week’s ceremony, it was pointed out by Dr Una May, chief executive of Sport Ireland, by way of expressing how far women’s sport has come, that 19 years ago when the awards were first sprung, there was scarcely a European Championship medal of any kind in the room.


A world champion would have won it hands down. A Champion Hurdle and Gold Cup winner would have won it for Rachael Blackmore. A first ever qualification for a World Cup finals would have gotten the women’s football team over the line.

A first ever LPGA win on the professional golf circuit would have settled it for Leona Maguire and the first million-dollar women’s world title fight headlining in Madison Square Garden would have earned Katie Taylor her sixth gong.

A 1,500m silver medal in the Commonwealth Games and European Championships, before becoming the first Irish woman to break the four minute barrier over the same distance in Brussels, smashing Sonia O’Sullivan’s 27-year-old national record would have won it for Ciara Mageean and medalling at the swimming World Championships a shoo-in for Ellen Walshe.

A subtext to the breadth of talent was the question of whether women specific awards had done its job, run its course? Has it gotten to where it wants to get to? Was it not time for women’s sport to go head-to-head with men and pick off trophies on merit without any gender distinction?

The answer is that it remains a work in progress. Just last summer, Kerry football hit the headlines when forward Louise Ni Mhuircheartaigh expressed frustration with their limited access to the county’s state-of-the-art centre of excellence at Currans.

The Kerry women were there for “every session” the year before and Ni Mhuircheartaigh admitted it was “annoying” how things had changed. It has since been ironed out but how often have the Kerry men’s team had to go public about training facilities?

Just over a year ago we learned about an “unacceptable error” that meant Connacht Women had to change in a derelict area alongside bins and with rats seemingly in close proximity at Energia Park before their interprovincial clash with Ulster.

Images of the set-up were shared widely on social media, with the IRFU and Leinster Rugby’s subsequent apology failing to allay anger and dismay.

In 2017 the Ireland women’s team claimed to have been treated as “fifth class citizens” by the FAI. A group of 13 players, supported by players’ union, the PFAI, spoke to the media of the humiliation of having to go into a public toilet in airports to change into, and then out of, tracksuits for international matches as the tracksuits had to be handed back for use by other teams.

“We are fighting for the future of women’s international football, this isn’t just about us,” said team captain Emma Byrne.

Goal Five, a women’s sportswear and performance apparel company, where five cent of profit goes to partners fighting to achieve gender equality, noted this year that US Congress passed Title IX in 1972, mandating equality in American women’s collegiate and secondary school sports.

Collegiate participation subsequently went up by almost tenfold over four decades with progress also higher in professional and Olympic sports. Still, fifty years later reports showed half of publicly funded national governing bodies’ boards were under 25 per cent female.

Women held 18 per cent of qualified coaching positions and nine per cent of senior coaching positions. Women comprised 30 per cent of Olympic governing bodies and 16.6 per cent of national Olympic committees, while international sports federations were 18 per cent female.

The reports also showed women athletes got four per cent of media sports coverage despite representing 40 per cent of the athletes.

Maybe the USA is entirely different to Ireland but probably not. That said, Taylor beat the men and won the RTÉ top award for the third time. Women have won the RTÉ award just 10 times since 1985, with Sonia O’Sullivan and Taylor accounting for eight of those, while Taylor didn’t win any until her Olympic gold medal in 2012 despite being a four-time amateur World Champion and five-time European champion.

The message is that things are getting better but not fast enough. The high visibility belongs to a small cohort of women. There are still snags, small minded gestures and poor attitudes.

You’d like to think the woman athlete’s refrain I know I’ll get into trouble but I’m going to say this anyway is dead as disco. Sure, the Sportswoman of the Year can be impossibly difficult to call. The feeling is, though, there are a few years left to run.