There are mountains to be climbed in women’s sport, but signs are they will be
There are marvellous sportswoman who don’t want nor need to be portrayed as victims
Stephanie Meadow (golf), Laura Twomey (camogie), Casey Stoney (soccer), Louise Quinn (soccer), and Sarah Rowe (Mayo GAA) at the launch of 20x20. It aims to increase participation, attendance and media coverage of women’s sport by 20% by the year 2020. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho
The Leinster rugby branch posted a hoot of a video recently, one that featured a bunch of young girls, around the eight to 12 age mark, answering questions about the sport they have all taken up.
Tackling was the majority of the girls’ favourite thing about the game, one of them saying, with a grin, “the way that you’re able to run through people, you feel really good afterwards”. And another told us that “if you’ve any anger, you can let it out on the person”. She is, perhaps, destined for regular spells in the sin bin.
Nothing, it seems, will stand in the way of their ambitions, not least the young Dubliner, with no apparent Kiwi connection, who already appears lost to Ireland. Her goal? “To play for the Black Ferns which is the women’s New Zealand.” Somebody needs to talk to her about the residency rule.
The rest, though, have all set their sights on playing for Leinster and/or Ireland, the striking part that so many of them, when asked “what’s your dream for the future?’, talked about their ambition to play the game professionally.
The current Irish senior team would no doubt smile at that one, it remains their ambition too, but when the possibility is even in the minds of a bunch of eight to 12-year-old girls you have to think: “we’ve come a long way, baby”.
Granted, it was a promotional video, so the emphasis is always going to come down heavily on the positive side in these things, but still it was hard not to contrast it with the launch video for the 20x20 campaign back in October, the goal of which is to increase participation, attendance and media coverage of women’s sport by 20 per cent by the year 2020.
Over sombre music, five young girls were asked to name some sports stars. They chose Cristiano Ronaldo, Paul Pogba, Jack McCaffrey, Usain Bolt and Rory McIlroy. When asked to name even a single sportswoman, they drew a blank. “I don’t really know any of the girls,” said one.
That prompted some chin-scratching. Had they not even heard of Katie Taylor, who has probably had as much media coverage over the last 10 years as any Irish sportsperson? None of the Irish hockey team, the sporting stars of the summer? Or Annalise Murphy? Or any of our Gaelic stars, like Cora Staunton or even one of the Dublin team that has won two All-Irelands in a row?
And with the exception of Taylor, whose exploits are now, regrettably, only viewable on subscription TV, the rest have all had their finest hours televised for all to see. And television, as we know, is king when it comes to making names and faces recognisable. It just seemed doubtful, then, that none of these sportswomen was known to the young girls questioned.
A trifling point, to be sure, but it was conspicuous because the intent appeared to be to paint a far bleaker picture than is the reality, which is the tone of so much coverage of women’s sport.
The fact is that there are multiple mountains still to be climbed, but great things are happening out there. Those mountains are being climbed steadily – women’s sport having being stuck, well, at base camp for way too long – thanks to the efforts of marvellous sportswoman who don’t want nor need to be portrayed as victims, nor to have sombre music selected as their soundtrack. They have considerably more resolve than most of those complaining on their behalf.
Take soccer. As the Guardian reported this week, Uefa have just signed a seven-year sponsorship deal with Visa for the women’s game, the company no doubt made to sit up by figures such as the increase in the BBC’s viewing figures for the women’s World Cup from 5.1 million in 2011 to 12.4 million in 2015.
And, by the by, last weekend’s derby between Levante and Valencia in the women’s Spanish league had a crowd of 20,198, prompting local newspaper Superdeporte to devote its front page to the game. Figures talk. As does organic growth, maybe more than hashtags.
In fairness to the 20x20 campaign it switched tack once it was up and running, its focus since on the very great things being achieved by the likes of Kellie Harrington, Rachael Blackmore, Ellen Keane, Ayeisha McFerran, Sanita Puspure, Katie-George Dunlevy and Eve McCrystal.
And our leading sportswomen have bought in to that campaign, among them Irish hockey captain Katie Mullan. She got a letter from an 11-year-old girl called Libby in Mr Shaw’s sixth class in St Mary’s Parish primary school in Bryanstown, Co Louth. Libby told her that “Mr Shaw has taught me how to play hurling and hockey over the past month or so, he says I’m a very good player”, but she wanted to know how she could reach Mullan’s level.
“Libby,” Mullan replied at the end of her very lovely and lengthy response, “I’m sure you have dreams, don’t let anyone ever tell you they aren’t possible! Dream big. You can’t put a limit on your dreams because nothing is impossible.”
Mullan knows better than most. Libby does now too. The soundtrack is a celebratory one.