Joanne O’Riordan: Let’s keep the fire burning for women in sport
This year has brought fresh female athletes to look up to, but we must support them too
Ellen Keane won the bronze medal in the 2018 World Para Swimming European Championships at the National Aquatic Centre, Dublin in August. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
This year, to date, can only be described as the year for sportswomen. It became the year where, if you named a sport, chances are a female athlete had a medal. From athletics to hockey; para swimming to rowing, the list was absolutely endless.
On Saturday night, before the women’s football All-Ireland semi-final, TG4 hosted a television show which obviously looked ahead to the three football finals, but also rewound through the years how far sports women have come. And, to be honest, it was the first time among the hectic schedules, constant promotion, constant battling and fighting that we were truly able to sit back and say, “wow, we truly have achieved a lot.”
And this is not going to be one of those “we are women, we have and will conquer all”, but in the last few years people have truly sat up and paid attention to women in sports.
From Fiona Coughlan and the Irish women’s rugby team winning a Grand Slam, all the way through the constant athletics records at underage and senior, to the successes in the water, be it swimming or rowing, everyone, at least at some stage, watched a sport they had no interest in watching years ago.
The conversation that took place on TG4 truly struck a chord when Nicci Daly said they were seeking a home for hockey. Imagine, finalists in a World Cup still seeking a home. Her key message was really summed up in one sentence: if you can see it, you can be it.
If you turn on the TV right now and flick through the sports channels, you will find women’s cricket, women’s golf, hockey, soccer, GAA, rowing and many other sports in between. Not only is it an insane range of sports and female stars, it’s also showcasing that a woman can play any sport.
The whole thing got me thinking how everyone actually has a role to play in shaping future generations
As Daly’s comments were ringing in my ears and making me think about the future, I was approached by a family who had a child missing an arm. We obviously got chatting about the game and her mother had said to me her daughter found a new role model, who turned out to be Ellen Keane.
The little girl had seen someone she could relate to, someone who had the same struggles, issues or life and, honestly, it was the first time I had heard someone openly announce a Para-athlete was their hero . . . and not in that bizarre, patronising way where someone with a disability is told they’re someone’s hero just because they smile through their difficulties.
The whole thing got me thinking how everyone – not just writers or athletes, but everyone – actually has a role to play in shaping future generations.
Firstly, we in the media have a role to bring the product and the story to you. We have the responsibility to showcase the diversity and broad range of athletes here in Ireland, be it Ellen Keane swimming with one arm, Sanita Puspure rowing to glory, Gina Akpe-Moses sprinting to glory, Róisín Upton and Ali Meeke coolly slotting home match-sealing penalties, the opportunities and range of sports available to all types of women are endless.
When I was a young girl, I (well, didn’t we all) only had Sonia O’ Sullivan. And that’s not a bad thing, but how am I, a limbless child, supposed to emulate Sonia? Don’t worry, I still love you, Sonia.
The point is, now every girl or woman potentially has someone to relate to. If you want to throw discuses and be an all-round legend, look at Niamh McCarthy and Orla Barry. Now, everyone has someone that they can see and be.
But, for me, the real onus is on you, the readers, the sports fans and the wider public. It is incredibly important to get out and support all these athletes and try to promote them the best you can. A lot of us are on social media, it has never been easier to spread the word. The game will never change unless we see bums on seats as well as the promotional tweets. The game will never change unless we turn off our TVs and turn on our passion.
The beauty of women’s sports is it’s not just there during a controversy or a final. It’s everywhere 24/7. Chances are your favourite soccer team has a women’s team. Chances are your local club has a football/camogie team. It’s as important to be there in January as it is to be there in December. And it’s important to take your kids to see what they too can accomplish if they want.
You never know, sitting in her bedroom somewhere, you might have the next Katie Taylor or Sonia O’ Sullivan or Ciara Mageean or Noëlle Healy or Martina O’Brien. But until these girls see it and look up to someone they can relate to, that burning fire may just burn itself out. So, while 2018 was a phenomenal year for female athletes, let’s keep up the trend and keep up the demand. Bums on seats and tweets earn sponsorships. Sponsorships turn into a better and a growing product. And a better, growing product can take off to reach any heights.