The biggest stories of 2021 belonged to sportswomen

Avalanche of firsts and emergence of stars a sign of shifting landscape in Irish sport

You’d nearly feel for Paul O’Donovan. There he is, indisputably Ireland’s greatest ever rower. Right up there in any chat about Ireland’s greatest ever Olympian. One of maybe three Irish sportspeople on the planet who makes everyone else in their sport puff their cheeks and give a low whistle. And yet he’s nearly an afterthought when it comes to assessing 2021, the sporting year.

This is unfair, it’s true. He deserves better, as does his consigliere Fintan McCarthy. They are two of only nine Irish people in history to have ever won an Olympic gold medal. It was a timeless thing they did, something that will outlast them and us and everyone else. In any other year, they’d be the toast of the December circuit, all those suits and boots and champagne flutes. Pronounced high kings of everything. The last bow tied on the Irish year of sport.

But 2021 is different. On this occasion, the biggest stories of the year belong to Irish sportswomen. Olympic gold is still the most potent currency around but in a time of rampant inflation across the board, it doesn’t buy the usual supply of spotlight.

So this isn't to diminish what the Skibbereen pair achieved in Tokyo. Far from it, in fact. They are only overshadowed this year because something genuinely exceptional happened. And kept happening. And keeps happening.


Unprecedented is one of those words that gets fluffed and padded beyond its remit. We shouldn’t be as quick to deploy it. It ought to be kept back like good wine, brought out only when the occasion demands it. Something is only unprecedented if it hasn’t happened before.

So in that spirit, here's a list of things that hadn't happened before 2021. There had never been a female winner of the Grand National. There had never been a female leading rider at Cheltenham. There had never been an Irish golfer at the Solheim Cup. There had never been a European rookie who went five matches unbeaten at the Solheim Cup. There had never been an Irish golfer who shot a 61 in a major.

More. No Irish women had ever won a team medal in any sport at the Olympics. No Irish athlete had ever won Paralympic medals in track cycling and road cycling at the same games. No Irish sprinter had ever done the 100m/200m gold medal double at a European under-20 championships. There had never been a Paralympics where two Irish female swimmers came home with medals.

Lots more. No woman had ever been a TMO at a men's Six Nations game. No woman had ever refereed a men's senior county final in the GAA. No 16-year-old – male or female – had scored a century in international cricket before they got to blow out the candles on their birthday cake. No Irish team had qualified for back-to-back hockey World Cups. No Irish women had ever been paid the same for playing soccer for their country as their male counterparts.

On and on and on. There had never been an Irish women’s soccer team who had won an away World Cup qualifier against a team ranked higher than them. There had never been an Irish woman in a European All-Around gymnastics final. There had never been an Irish woman in a World All-Around gymnastics final. There had never been an Irish woman in an Olympic diving semi-final.

And this is just the stuff that had never been done before. Nowhere in that list is a mention of Kellie Harrington or Katie Taylor or the Meath footballers. Ballymacarbry's 40 county titles in a row aren't in there. Neither are the Galway camogie team. Nor Shelbourne's ridiculous last-day heroics, nor Orla O'Dwyer's AFLW title, nor Mona McSharry's Olympic final.

So look, there’s a lot to unpack there. An avalanche of first evers and best evers and all the rest of it. It would be easy to get smothered by it all, to let the sheer onslaught of it take your breath away. But when you step back from it all and go looking for the why, three distinct elements jump out.

First, and most obviously, this is a generation of intensely talented and driven Irish sportswomen. In one sense, this is not new. Every once in a while throughout our sporting history, we get a Maeve Kyle or a Rosemary Smith or a Sonia O'Sullivan or a Derval O'Rourke. They come through by themselves, carried along on their own bloody-minded skill and brilliance. We usually haven't done a whole lot to produce them. They are essentially their own creations.

What is different this time is the fact that there is such a glut. All right here, right now. The days of having to wait six months for Sonia's next race are long gone. On any day, in any week, through every month of the year, Irish women are performing at the pinnacle of their chosen sport. Blackmore and Taylor, Maguire and Harrington, Ellen Keane and Vikki Wall, Katie-George Dunlevy and Eve McCrystal, Katie McCabe and Denise O'Sullivan and Beibhinn Parsons.

There is a cumulative effect to them all being around at the same time. On a given Saturday, you can flick the TV from watching McCabe being the assist leader on the best team in England to Blackmore winning the big race at Haydock to Maguire challenging for the latest LPGA title.

You don’t have to go ferreting them out or chasing some glitchy stream to see them. They are a normal part of the sporting landscape. You take it for granted that they are there. You expect them to go and be among the best on show. In and of itself, that’s a giant leap.

Second, the wheel keeps turning. At the Olympics, the two most gut-wrenching interviews with Irish athletes were Natalya Coyle and Annalise Murphy. Both in their 30s, both trailblazers, both beyond heartbroken at their last Olympics falling apart on them. Yet in their devastation, both of them made a point of talking glowingly of those coming up behind them. When Sive Brassil (modern pentathlon) and Eve McMahon and Aoife Hopkins (sailing) eventually become Olympians, they will be following well-worn paths.

The third thing – and maybe the most important thing – that jumps out is just how young women's sport is. We forget this all the time. In soccer, the men's World Cup is 61 years older than the women's one. Men's boxing has been an Olympic sport for 108 years longer than women's boxing. Modern pentathlon ain't all that modern – men were competing in it at the Olympics as early as 1912 whereas women weren't allowed to give it a go until Sydney in 2000.

There were 28 Ryder Cups before there was a Solheim Cup. The first women's football All-Ireland was in 1974, just the 87 years after the first men's competition. The first ever horse race for women riders in the UK was in 1972, a mere 192 years after the first Epsom Derby. We could go on.

The point is, we’re at the foot of the mountain. We presume that 2021 was an exceptional year but only because history and slow thinking has conditioned us that way. Who are we to imagine that 2022 can’t be as good or better? Or that the decade to come won’t dwarf what has happened in the past 12 months?

Already we know that 2022 will provide us with Taylor's biggest ever fight, a multimillion dollar showdown with Amanda Serrano. And that the Ireland soccer team's assault on a first ever qualification for the World Cup is on track. And that Maguire's first LPGA title is surely in the post. And that if Blackmore avoids injury, she should have another bumper Cheltenham. We know all this and we know also that there's so much we don't know.

This has been the best year. Until the next one.