When in 2004 The Irish Times/Sport Ireland Sportswoman of the Year awards first emerged from the shadows of the countless other sporting award schemes, most or all of which were typically dominated by men, there was no telling or even guessing just how celebratory they might become.
After some slow and steady evolution in the years since, 2021 marks something or a revolution – the first year in Irish sporting history where the success of Irish woman utterly dominated the entire landscape and the headlines, including the first woman winner of the Grand National in Rachael Blackmore. Top that.
From Croke Park to Cheltenham, from Aintree to Ohio, from Adelaide to Helsinki, from Tokyo to Harare, and lots more in between, in truth 2021 may never be topped.
Paying tribute to all the 2021 winners, sports editor of The Irish Times Malachy Logan also reflected on the early years of these awards, which he started up for the sole purpose of affording more recognition to women's sporting achievements at whatever level. In truth he could never have imagined a year like this either.
“It was something that wasn’t in place at the time, there was always an over-emphasis on male sport,” he said, “and I felt it would be good for The Irish Times, and we opened dedicated pages to women sport. People still judge women’s sport against men’s sport, which is absolutely wrong, women’s sport stands on its own, and should be judged by its own standards.
“I think this year we could almost have had a weekly award, there were so many achievements by Irish women in sport. But it is a momentous list of achievements, from Cheltenham and Aintree for Rachael Blackmore, think of the Meath football team coming up from intermediate level to beat the Dubs in the All-Ireland final, and just watching Katie McCabe there, suddenly people are familiar with all these names.
“There’s still a lot of work to be done in terms of media coverage, but I’ve watched a transformation of women’s sport, have been privileged to be a part of it in The Irish Times, and I can only see it going further and further.”
Logan also highlighted the growth in women’s sporting role models, which can only inspire future generations to come: “The inspiration these outstanding women and teams provide for the next generation of aspiring sports stars is invaluable. Not alone can they compete with the best in their sports, they also handle their success with a humility and modesty that speaks volumes for the coaches, partners, parents, and friends, who are an integral part of their success.”
John Treacy, chief executive of Sport Ireland, likewise reflected on a year unlike any other, the 1984 Olympic marathon silver medal winner also highlighting the need to keep building on this success.
“It was ridiculous this year, the performances we got throughout the year from women in Irish sport was just phenomenal,” he said. “And what an Olympic Games, and what a Paralympics, one of my crowning moments, but an absolute fantastic year.
“I do think things have changed dramatically since 2004, really and truly. There’s huge emphasis now on women’s sport, whether it’s high-performance or participation, and we’re getting woman into the board rooms in well, which is really, really important, and makes for better decision making.
“Looking at the profile for women athletes, for many now it’s the same as the men, and that’s the way it should be. To continue this success story of Irish women in sport, Sport Ireland will continue to develop, foster and promote women’s sport through the work of our national governing bodies and the network of local sports partnerships. I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the many people who work hard on the ground and volunteers who give their time freely to maximise opportunities for women to take part in sport and physical activity.”
Other recipients of the 12 monthly awards included golfer Leona Maguire, who excelled as the first Irish woman to represent Europe in the Solheim Cup – she went on win four and a half points; Vikki Wall who was player of the match in Meath’s stunning All-Ireland final victory over a Dublin team seeking their fifth title in a row.
Later, cricketer Amy Hunter turned 16 on the day she scored 121 runs for Ireland against Zimbabwe in Harare, an achievement which made her the youngest player, male or female, to score a one-day international century; boxer Katie Taylor, who picked up her 15th monthly award; and Arsenal and Ireland international soccer star Katie McCabe.
Also present at the Shelbourne Hotel was Minister of State for Sport, Jack Chambers, who had the honour and pleasure of presenting Blackmore with her overall award
“It’s so important that our young people and especially girls have role models in sport to look up to and to emulate,” he said. “We are fortunate to have had so many brilliant sportswomen who have excelled across so many different sports this year and I am confident they have inspired a future generation of stars to get involved in sport and physical activity.
“Congratulations to all the monthly award winners whose incredible feats achieved in 2021 lifted their communities, their counties and their country this year. I want to pay a special tribute to the overall award winner Rachael Blackmore and to the outstanding achievements winners”.