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Joanne O’Riordan: Why not have an Irish women’s sports week?

A celebration of Ireland’s talented sports women could help the next generation

Women’s sports need to be marketed better. Why are Republic of Ireland women’s international soccer games kicking off on a Thursday afternoon at 3pm? Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho

Sit back and think hard of all the athletes Ireland has produced. Now, think of how many of those are female. Now, think about how often you see or hear anything from or about the athlete.

The Women’s Sports Week has kicked off in the UK. Its aim is to highlight key sportswomen and inform young girls about playing sport.

The week comes at a perfect time. The women’s cricket and rugby world cups as well as the women’s European soccer and hockey championships all take place this year.

More than ever, it’s important to look at women in sport. Inequalities still exist, but women’s participation is on the rise. For example, at the London Olympics in 2012, women competed in all sports for the first time in the history of the games, and the Rio Olympics in 2016 saw the highest female participation ever – a strong 45.2 per cent.

In Ireland, women’s sports are on the rise, so why don’t we have a week to celebrate our incredible athletes?

As a youngster growing up in Cork, I aspired to dedicate myself to an activity like Sonia O’ Sullivan did. I always wanted to be as talented and humble as Juliet Murphy. I always wanted to be as carefree but ridiculously talented as Briege Corkery.

Honest game

We as a nation are hugely proud of the talent we export. Take a look at how the country stops when Ireland do well in the Six Nations, or qualify for a major soccer tournament. The support is there for sports, but it’s time we normalise women.

Two years ago, my dad and I sat down to watch a women’s soccer match, and my dad commented that the women don’t go down as theatrically as the men. Not only were we delighted with the free flow of the game, we were also happy to watch a good honest match. This isn’t being dramatic and overselling it, but I don’t understand the fear the women’s game may be as good as the men’s game.

The argument on how women’s sport is marketed is also interesting. Take the women’s national soccer team. The target audience is probably pre-teen girls and their parents. So, why do the FAI schedule their games for a Thursday afternoon at 3pm? People want to support the team, but it’s impossible with work and school.

Seeing a Stephanie Roche, an Emma Byrne or a Megan Campbell is important. Representation matters. It’s important these young girls see a future version of them succeeding and being treated fairly. It’s important to highlight the commitment and levels of dedication.

Period pain

The idea of a women’s sports week and raising awareness about certain causes is interesting. For example, a study shows 31 per cent of women participate in sport once a week compared to 45 per cent of men.

One of the main reasons for girls’ failure to participate is period pain. The unspoken demon that makes every man curl with embarrassment and every woman blush. It’s real, every woman goes through it. Just under half of the adult women surveyed by Betty for Schools in the UK said they’ve skipped PE classes because of menstruation.

Oddly enough, it wasn’t the pain that stopped them. It was the fear of being shamed and ridiculed by classmates. Period shaming, as it’s known, is a huge barrier for young girls participating in sports.

I’m not saying we should excuse the girls, I’m calling for more education. Girls should feel comfortable enough to get some exercise and also be educated that all girls go through this experience.

There are plenty of reasons why Ireland needs a women’s sport week. We certainly have enough talent to help with representation, but we also need to support and encourage young girls to participate.

Sponsorship is essential, as seen with Lidl’s backing of women’s football. It is also essential we integrate women into everyday sports. Advertising and giving camogie and football a more defined segment in The Sunday Game. The interest is there, it’s up to sporting organisations to take advantage.

As a new generation of athletes is being produced, let’s show them that they too are worth it. Their dedication is just as valued as that of others.

I urge the Minister for Sport, Sports Ireland, the GAA/LGFA/Camogie Association, the FAI, the IRFU and others to unite and create a week where we celebrate sportswomen and encourage girls to get involved.