Joanne O’Riordan: Opportunity is key for Ireland’s sportswomen

Given a chance, the likes of Rachael Blackmore show the heights that can be achieved

Rachael Blackmore celebrates Champion Hurdle victory on Honeysuckle at Cheltenham. Photograph: Dan Mullan/Getty

Rachael Blackmore celebrates Champion Hurdle victory on Honeysuckle at Cheltenham. Photograph: Dan Mullan/Getty

 

After a mammoth few weeks of sport, one is forgiven for being so exhausted that the initial feeling of inspiration and motivation has simply left the body. But the last few weeks have been particularly good if you have a disability or if you’re a woman in sport.

When I first got this gig of providing opinions and interviews across all things women in sport, I slowly realised just how similar it is living with a disability in a society that doesn’t cater to you or your needs and being a woman in sport.

I can’t get into a bank due to steps outside the entrance; Meath’s new Trevor Giles, Vikki Wall, still can’t get direct access to a pitch for her to train on. I can’t use the wheelchair toilet because the cleaning supplies are in there while some women in sport don’t have hot showers after training.

These are all the bare minimum, but when added together, it eventually screams that society and those in charge couldn’t be bothered to change to help you along. In fact, it’s sort of up to you to make the noise to bring about change while doing your regular job.

So, slowly I realised these skills I gained from being an activist were transferable, and bit by bit, I realised we were all looking for the same thing: a chance.

2021 saw a massive rise in women in sport dominating and ensuring Team Ireland were on top all day, every day.

A chance

It first started with Rachael Blackmore, who ripped up the generic horseracing script and became a household name. She achieved two notable firsts at the Cheltenham Festival, becoming the first female jockey to partner a winner of the Champion Hurdle and, by finishing with six winners across the four days, she also became the first female jockey to win the Ruby Walsh Trophy for leading Cheltenham jockey. She then became the first female jockey to win the Grand National. Again, Blackmore, in an incredibly male-dominated environment, was given a chance and, despite being the fourth favourite, overcame the odds.

You also have Kellie Harrington. I think we all know the heroics of Kellie at this stage, but she is living proof of how sport can infiltrate an area and offer people a lifeline they may not ever get. In doing so, she has set a precedent for all those who are vying for that second chance. Even on her morning runs, she has plenty of kids accompanying her, all looking to emulate her success.

Which, of course, brings me on to the Paralympics. The Paralympics and its athletes have struggled to make waves across broadcasts or newspapers alike, while the organisation battles for funding in a sports world that’s incredibly starved of money.

Team Ireland’s Katie-George Dunlevy and Eve McCrystal carry the Irish flag at the Tokyo closing ceremony. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho
Team Ireland’s Katie-George Dunlevy and Eve McCrystal carry the Irish flag at the Tokyo closing ceremony. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

Athletes themselves have struggled with their titles and role in society. Many feel being called Paralympian is good enough, while others don’t really care and prefer the focus to remain on their athletic achievements and accolades.

So, RTÉ went out on a limb and decided to build on the highlights show from Rio and added a usually four-hour daytime programme alongside a highlights program. The results were fascinating. Many deemed it compulsory family viewing. Others considered it worthy of the elite-athlete status after watching tight victories for Jason Smyth and Ellen Keane and comprehensive victories for Katie-George Dunlevy and Eve McCrystal.

Opportunity

Either way, the last year has shown us what can be achieved or made possible if people give those asking for a chance their opportunity. 600,000 tuned into Meath beating Dublin in the Ladies football senior All Ireland final, blowing every record out of the water.

And while all these achievements are incredible, with their miracle status heightened due to their backstory, the overlapping theme is providing an opportunity. As Australian journalist, Sally Young once said, “No amount of smiling at a flight of stairs ever made it turn into a ramp.”

All these stories prove the impossible can be achieved with hard work, dedication and determination, but the lasting legacy will be how these moments will change how we govern sport.

Are we now officially going to move on from ladies football or camogie teams ringing around for a pitch, setting up a GoFundMe to achieve All Ireland success? Are we going to see Paralympics Ireland, Sport Ireland, and other sporting governing bodies open up their gates and doors to those living with a disability after using some of the Paralympians stories to inspire able-bodied future stars?

The finer details will, of course, define the future legacy and take time, but now is the time to ride this wave of opportunity, stick out a hand and give those with little to no opportunity some hope and a chance at experiencing the highs and lows of sport.

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