Sonia O’Sullivan: Awards highlight how far women’s sport has come

Attending The Irish Times/Sport Ireland women’s sports awards for the first time

Cork dual stars Briege Corkery and Rena Buckley were the 2015 joint winners of The Irish Times/Sport Ireland Sportswoman of the Year Award 2015’. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

Cork dual stars Briege Corkery and Rena Buckley were the 2015 joint winners of The Irish Times/Sport Ireland Sportswoman of the Year Award 2015’. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

 

Something about December and all these annual sporting awards makes every athlete reflect a little on their own career. For me it’s hard to match the memories with some of the images. For the most part, in my time, we’d very little internet, no digital cameras, and certainly no such thing as social media.

There was no such thing as The Irish Times/Sport Ireland women’s sports awards either. For the last 12 years, they’ve been honouring monthly award winners, culminating with the outright sportswoman of the year. For the first time I’ll also be attending these awards, in Dublin on Friday, excited to have travelled back from Australia to see these achievements being recognised and celebrated.

When I was competing at my peak, back in the 1990s, I never paid much attention to the distinct lack in coverage of women in sport. In some ways I was lucky to be a part of a sport were men and women competed on the same stage, and often a successful woman would be the main story and front page news.

There was always a running joke amongst the Irish lads living and training in London at the time – the likes of Frank O’Mara, Marcus O’Sullivan, Paul Donovan – that I would often disappear when we landed in Heathrow, to pick up the Irish papers, before heading back to Teddington. 

Scrapbook

I remember one time, after winning the final race in the IAAF Golden League, Frank picked up an Irish paper for me. Little did I know he’d taken out one of the sports pages, before handing it to me, and I couldn’t figure out why there was no picture or report about my win, as I turned the pages back and forth, over and over again.

I can also remember when Catherina McKiernan won the London marathon, in 1998, and she was all over the front pages of the British newspapers, as I headed down to my local coffee shop the next day in Teddington, which again was great to see.

Athletics was always well covered as a mainstream sport back then, for both men and woman. Although at my first Olympic Games, in Barcelona 1992, there were only three women on the Irish athletics team, and a total of 10 Irish women, across four sports. This summer, in Rio, there were 26 Irish women, across 12 sports.  It’s great to see such growth in numbers, although there is still room for more women on team Ireland in the future.

This growth, particularly the diversity of sports, spreads the web of attraction to more young women who may be trying to find their passion in sport. And so too do these women’s sport awards.

Truth is award ceremonies were never my favourite activity to attend, while competing. I would always rather stand on the start line and be rewarded on crossing the finish line, have always been more comfortable in my training gear and running shoes.

Still, looking back now, I fully appreciate the acknowledgement of such sporting achievements, how important it is to relive these great sporting moments and share them with the younger generation, to act as inspiration, and role models. And I also looked up to the women athletes I would read about in things like Marathon Magazine, published by the Fr Liam Kelleher in Cork, especially the great coverage he gave to local athletes.

Growing up in Cobh, there weren’t many sporting choices for girls to be involved with. Athletics was the most dominant sport and many of my friends had a few years in cross country and athletics and then gradually drifted away, as more time and effort was required to continue to be competitive and get some reward for your efforts. There was no obvious pathway that would help keep them involved.

We live in a very different world now, and sport is an integral part of daily life for most people. Even if I don’t compete anymore, or move anywhere near the speed I used to, my hour of activity everyday is still the most important part of my day. I feel lucky to have been involved with sport at the highest level, to have seen great heights, and with that understand how important it is to have sports women as role models.

I also caught the running bug early, and I suppose was lucky in that when you taste success early on, like I did, you never want to let go. I was also eager to learn and improve and at times difficult to hold back, but I couldn’t get enough, between the instant gratification of a race result, and times on the training track.

Irish team trips

The day we came home, we went for a run in the Phoenix Park, and I remember Deirdre telling me you could run 10 miles in the park without ever retracing your footsteps, which sounded great to me.

Little things like that can mean so much, stick with a young athlete forever. The Phoenix Park is still one of my favourite places to run, get lost in, when there is no time pressure to get back.

Looking through the list of previous Irish Times/Sport Ireland sportswomen of the year, it’s clear the mix and diversity of sports continues to grow each year. It’s not always easy to pick a monthly winner, or an outright winner, except maybe in Olympic years, where winning a medal has always been treated equally, for a man or woman. It’s still the ultimate sporting prize.

 But we also see now how women’s rugby, boxing, Gaelic games, golf, rowing, modern pentathlon, horse racing and many others are all represented, which is another indication of how far women’s sport has come in the last 12 years since these awards were introduced. Together they can only pave the way for further success by Irish women on the national and international stage.

There is also wealth of knowledge and experience there, to be shared by Irish women, which can be used to further inspire the next generation to strive for their own greatness. And I’m certainly looking forward to sharing some small piece of all that at these awards.

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