Stars align to help kick-start a 20x20 vision of women’s sport

Target of 20x20 campaign to increase relevant figures 20 per cent by the year 2020

Jessica Harrington was recalling her early days as a horse trainer when the owners would ring her house to find out how things were going.

“And they’d want to speak to my husband Johnny,” she said, “and he hadn’t a clue what was going on.”

Things, she said, have improved somewhat for women in the world of sport since then, although Rena Buckley, the possessor of 18 All-Ireland medals, had a tale to share that suggested some attitudes are still in need of shifting.

Buckley was invited to present medals to a west Cork club’s U-14 girls and U-12 boys championship-winning teams. But when she got there she was informed it had been decided that she’d only do the girls’ presentation.

“The guy who asked me down took me aside and said ‘look, we’re really sorry but the GAA team actually don’t want you to present the boys with the medals’. Twelve-year-olds,” she laughed, somewhat doubting it was they who reckoned she wasn’t worthy of the task.

“So, they got some local guy to do it. He was mortified, he could hardly look at me, he was really embarrassed. But that was just the mindset of the person organising it. That was in 2017– that wasn’t 1986.”

Graham Shaw, the coach of the Irish women's hockey team that reached the World Cup final, shook his head. But he's had his own run-in with similar attitudes since the summer.

“I was out the other evening and two lads asked me ‘when are you going to do the men’s job?’ I looked at them like, ‘what?’ We just won a silver medal in the World Cup, I want to be with them for the next six, eight, 10 years if I can! This is the team that can go to the next level. It’s a mindset we definitely need to change.”

The trio were speaking at the launch of the 20x20 campaign at Google’s Dublin headquarters. The target of the initiative, backed by the Federation of Irish Sport, is to increase by 20 per cent by the year 2020 the media coverage, attendances and participation numbers in women’s sport.

The campaign, supported by AIG, Investec, KPMG, Three and Lidl, will have a heavy social media presence and will ask people to “pledge one action to show their support by doing anything that can accelerate progress for women’s sport in Ireland and realise the key objectives”.

Little encouragement

Also at the launch were Mayo footballer Sarah Rowe, Republic of Ireland soccer international Louise Quinn, Dublin camogie player Laura Twomey, golfer Stephanie Meadow, the coach of the Manchester United women's team Casey Stoney, CEO of Swim Ireland Sarah Keane. Sport Ireland CEO John Treacy making the opening remarks.

The launch video – “If she can’t see it, she can’t be it”– featured a number of young girls struggling to name any female role models in sport because of the lack of media coverage, although Buckley insisted that things have improved considerably on that front.

“I remember the first time I walked in to a Cork senior ladies football dressing room I knew nobody apart my club-mates because I knew nothing about the team, I’d never read an article in the paper about them. It’s totally different for girls in Cork now.”

“Things have changed,” Harrington agreed.

“When I was growing up every role model I had, either as a jockey or a trainer, was a man, now we have Rachel Blackmore, look what Katie Walsh achieved, look what Nina Carberry achieved. And hopefully more women will become trainers because of what I have been lucky enough to achieve too.

“When I started out I got the feeling that I wasn’t meant to be there, the only way I could prove myself was by making my horses win. But there were times when I thought ‘Jesus, do I really want to do this?’ There was very little support when I started off 30 years ago, there was very little encouragement, mostly it was ‘I suppose you can do it’ rather than ‘you CAN do it’.”

Why did she keep going?

“To prove that I was right and they were wrong,” she said. “And I’m stubborn.”

Shaw, meanwhile, cited the impact of the hockey team after their summer success.

“I have a young girl and the first thing she said to me when I came back from the World Cup was ‘Daddy, I want to be a hockey player’. That shouldn’t mean as much as it meant to me, but it’s amazing how these girls have impacted young girls’ lives. When we empower them and support them they can do special things.”

Co-operation with the media is also key, Buckley insisted, urging sportswomen not to go down the path of so many of their male equivalents these days with their reluctance to speak with the press.

“I think it’s really important to get female stories out there, we really need to sell ourselves, if the media are getting on board with us we need to get on board with them. Media coverage needs to improve and we need to co-operate with that. Although when I was playing I didn’t really like doing too many interviews, I remember thinking ‘if only I was Stephen Cluxton I could just say no to everybody’,” she laughed.