Joanne O’Riordan: Don’t let controversies obscure sportswomen’s feats

Real narrative of camogie final heroics and Osaka’s achievement overlooked

Referee Eamon Cassidy during the camogie final. “Maybe camogie is being officiated in the wrong way. I’m not saying let’s all go out and allow all hell to break loose, but  . . let’s celebrate some physicality in women’s sports.”  Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho

Referee Eamon Cassidy during the camogie final. “Maybe camogie is being officiated in the wrong way. I’m not saying let’s all go out and allow all hell to break loose, but . . let’s celebrate some physicality in women’s sports.” Photograph: Laszlo Geczo/Inpho

 

It was one of the biggest weekends in women’s sport.

Between the US Open tennis final and the Camogie All-Ireland final, it felt like the whole weekend was set up to showcase the best in female talent, both up-and -coming and of course the seasoned vets doing it all over again.

Camogie had its highest attendance in Croke Park in 14 years with 21,453 while the US Open final was set to be a momentous one. Two women of colour both going toe to toe, one hungry for the taste of success while the other still seeking to fulfil her never-ending hunger and desire for success.

But, here we are, almost a week later and people are still asking me everywhere I go for my opinion on the refereeing decisions.

I get it. For women’s sport to feature on the front pages and back, we sort of needed a crisis, a drama and a soap opera. We needed a controversy in order to make women’s sports worth talking about.

Now, I’m not excusing the officiating that went on in both finals. But, here are the facts. The camogie final had it’s highest attendance in years and was the perfect stage to renew the rivalry between Cork v Kilkenny – a rivalry that, when I was a child, captured everyone’s imaginations, both male and female.

In this final alone we had evergreen Aoife Murray, Cork’s heroic goalkeeper, who made her strides into the pages of legends, and alongside her, you had Gemma O’ Connor, Defence Forces by job title and by nature.

On the other side, you had Kilkenny laying down two ferocious markers, one hit by Meighan Farrelly on Gemma O’ Connor, followed by the dispossession of Ashling Thompson.

You had Chloe Sigerson’s long-range shooting and the steely nerves of Orla Cotter to nail that match-winning free. And among the stories, you had Grace Walsh, the Kilkenny corner back who, throughout the season used her pace, speed and grit to evolve into her role.

Yet, to the casual camogie fan who drifts in and out, the only conversation was about the officiating.

How could a game that involves sticks to hit a ball be officiated so fussily? How could a whole final be dictated by the referee’s terms and be so slowed down it felt like an ad for the death of Gaelic football?

Bizarrely, the evolution of women and women’s sports is quite rapid. And curiously, in women’s sports, if they hit each other, they won’t collapse and die on the field. Hurling and camogie are the few sports that are deemed to be outrageously dangerous, yet both showcase the raw power and silky skill needed to survive.

Maybe camogie is being officiated in the wrong way. I’m not saying let’s all go out and allow all hell to break loose, but the same way we celebrate Ronan Maher’s, let’s celebrate some physicality in women’s sports. Let’s celebrate the big hits, the great dispossessions and not penalise them for standing their ground or being a little over-aggressive.

Legal hits

Sport is played by pushing all those fine margins, so, to save camogie, we need to allow the game to be free-flowing, celebrate the big yet legal hits and accept the physicality in women's sports.

After I had all that officiating figured out in my head, I watched and heard the greatest quote to ever grace a sports arena.

“I have a daughter, I stand for what’s right, and I don’t cheat”.

I mean, I’m a Serena Williams fan, I love the work she does on and off the court, and I understand sometimes a person can snap when pushed and pushed but . . . ?

We all know Serena is a complicated character and she uses rage and anger to motivate herself. Sometimes it works, sometimes she’s threatening to shove tennis balls down umpires’ throats and sometimes her daughter’s existence is a reason for her not to cheat.

Whether or not you agree with Serena’s outburst is one thing, whether you think the umpire was sexist and racist is another, but yet again, we lost sight of the real narrative which was Naomi Osaka’s first major title came against the most successful athlete of all time.

Frankly, these controversies rob the winners and losers of their special moments. By creating a circus and laying the drama at the feet of Serena Williams, the umpire or the camogie officials, either way, it does a disservice to what actually is going on on the pitch and on the court.

I’m all for these new discussions, and I’m all for studies or whatever is necessary to examine if rules are applied differently to a specific gender or person of colour.

Let’s have the rules conversation, sure, but let’s not forget the other narratives that have taken place. Women in sport get few shots to grace the covers of newspapers, to dominate the headlines and be a leading topic of conversation.

Don’t do them a disservice by making it all about a controversy.

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