Change for the better as Irish women make their Olympic mark

Maeve Kyle was the first woman to represent Ireland at the Olympics in Melbourne in 1956

When women first took part in the Olympic Games in Paris in 1900, four years after the first modern Olympics in Athens, it was something of a novelty.

The reviver of the modern Games, Pierre de Coubertin, European royalty, right wing and a misogynist, saw little about women competing that he liked. Just 2.2 per cent of the Olympic athletes at the turn of the 19th century were women.

The Olympics, De Coubertin said were “reserved for the solemn and periodic exaltation of male athleticism with internationalism as a base, loyalty as a means, arts for its setting and female applause for its reward”.

Far from curdling the cream, his attitude was commonplace and accepted. But since 1991, all new sports wishing to be included on the Olympic programme have to feature women’s events and at London 2012 over 44 per cent of the athletes were female across 26 sports.


Women’s boxing was included for the first time, if only across three weight divisions compared to 10 for men.

London also marked the high point of Irish women's participation in the Olympics with 30 athletes taking part and Katie Taylor winning the gold medal in the lightweight boxing. Taylor was just the third Irish female in modern times to win an Olympic medal following swimmer Michelle Smith in Atlanta 1992 and Sonia O'Sullivan in Sydney 2000.

In Rio the International Olympic Committee believes the number of women will rise to 45 per cent across 28 sports. Potential Irish team members are still qualifying across a number of sports and the final number won't be known until just weeks before Rio kicks off in August.

Smith was the first Irish woman to win an Olympic medal since independence, clinching gold in the 400 metre freestyle in Atlanta. O’Sullivan followed in Sydney’s 5000 metres with a silver and Taylor in the inaugural boxing event in London 2012.

First woman

But it was

Maeve Kyle

, who was the pioneer hockey player and athlete, who became the first woman to represent Ireland at the Olympics, when she qualified for the sprints in Melbourne 1956.

She also went to Rome, where she was accompanied by ladies Foil competitor Shirley Armstrong. Four years later Kyle took the journey to the 1964 Tokyo Olympics as she did in 1956, the only woman on the Irish team.

“I was the first who went to an Olympics and it was the Olympic Council of Ireland who sent me, a very brave thing to do at the time.” she says.

"In my day society thought it was inappropriate, although my parents never did. I was a young married woman with a daughter who was two-years-old when I was away. One letter sent to the Irish Times at the time and it was published said I was a disgrace going away to the other side of the world with boys.

“My parents were absolutely brilliant. They offered to look after Shauna but lots of people would have totally disapproved.”

In the early years the Irish landscape was heavily shaped by John Charles McQuaid, a major operator in the singularly powerful Irish Catholic Church of post-independence Ireland, and he led the attack on female sport.

A Holy Ghost father and president of Dublin’s Blackrock College, McQuaid asserted that “mixed athletics and all cognate immodesties are abuses that right-minded people reprobate, wherever and whenever they exist”. He added: “God is not modern; nor is his Law” while women competing in the same sporting arenas with men were “un-Irish and un-Catholic”.

Made an archbishop in 1940, McQuaid had little sympathy for alien notions such as women’s rights. But Kyle, brought up Church of Ireland in Kilkenny College and married to a Presbyterian (Sean) held the view that “the man above cares little about what room you pray”.

By 1956, the longest women’s race was 220 yards (200 metres). The 3,000 metres and marathon were introduced in 1984. The 3K only became 5K, the same distance run by men, in the Atlanta 1996 Games.

“The boys were so good. They never left me out of anything. Most of them were boxers,” says Kyle. “I was friendly with Ronnie Delaney and Eamon Kinsella but I was also very aware that Ireland was not the only country where it was slightly frowned on. That was not for religious reasons. It was the mores of the time.”

Ireland first reached double figures for women competitors at Olympic Games in Los Angeles and although the numbers fell away for Seoul in 1988, where there were nine athletes, there has been a rise in numbers with the 24 at Sydney and 30 in London Irish high points.

Limiting factor

In recent year’s qualification has become a limiting factor as well as the financial support pumped into sport by larger countries. While participation rates for Irish women have gone up, the simple reality is that it’s much harder to reach the marks required for Olympic entry.

“I didn’t want to let my husband down, who I adored,” says Kyle. “It was important for me to do well and not just take part because I was a woman. I was a hockey international who qualified for the sprints but I was never fast enough to run at that level. My event was 400m, which didn’t come in until 1964.

“I was born in 1928. In the last 50-60 years there have been monumental changes in attitude to women,” she says. And women’s boxing?

“You get hurt in all sports, what’s the difference? You get hit on the head with a camogie stick – who is screaming about that? Women in sport have to stand up for their own sport.”

Overall 13.3 percent of all the competitors in Melbourne 1956 were women, while Kyle was the only woman in an Irish team of 15 athletes. In 2012, when Ireland had 30 female athletes in London, it represented almost half of the team of 62.

The projection for Rio this year as the qualification events in a number of sports are ongoing is 45 per cent female athletes across 28 sports, with golf and Women’s Sevens Rugby included in the programme for the first time.

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson

Johnny Watterson is a sports writer with The Irish Times