Women in sport

Elaine McCahill


Last Saturday most of us gazed misty-eyed at television screens as an emotional Brian O’Driscoll was named man-of-the-match and walked laps of the Aviva with his daughter Sadie in tow. Whether you have an avid interest in rugby or not, O’Driscoll is a ubiquitous presence when it comes to Irish sport. He has such a likeable and endearing demeanour that many of us feel we have shared both the heartbreak and the joy of his incredible sporting career. He leads a fascinating life, all the more so for his seemingly perfect family life with his actress wife, Amy Huberman and their adorable offspring.

However, while many of us were still indulging in nostalgia and discussing his best moment, the Irish women’s rugby team and current Six Nation Grand Slam title holders as it happens, also lined out against Italy at the Aviva Stadium. Saturday also happened to be International Women’s Day, yet the ladies game did not follow that afternoon, instead RTE offered live coverage of the Scotland v. France game. I’m sure many will throw out the usual arguments when the lack of coverage for women’s sports gets mentioned: lack of interest from both men and women, less skill and aggression and overall less physicality. When discussing the lack of interest in women playing sport, many tie it to preconceived gender roles. Society and the media for the most part, dictate what our interests are and what receives coverage as a result, and unfortunately the success of the male is still of the utmost importance to society.

The pomp and spectacle, the sponsorship, the money, the journalists, the television networks push male sports to the forefront and thereby dictate, for the most part, what is presented to the masses. If there is no female soccer, rugby or camogie games shown on the major television networks or written about in the national papers, then it so much less like to pique your interest and only the resolute fans will seek out the coverage online or through smaller tv channels. Of course, the most recent exception to this argument is the meteoric rise of boxer Katie Taylor. She was the sporting heroine Ireland was crying out for.

She is dedicated, talented and most importantly she brought us to the forefront of international glory through her incredible Olympic win. It’s been a long time since any female sports star caught the public’s imagination like she did. It’s fantastic that young girls and teenagers have a powerful, talented athlete to look up to and aspire to replicate. However, she had to achieve the absolute best before she garnered much attention or recognition. Thinking back on my childhood when I was an avid swimmer, Michelle de Brun was my idol until of course, it all went sour. I played numerous sports but yet it was posters of the male Tipperary hurling players that covered the walls of my childhood bedroom. Even if you look at one of the biggest hits of the early 2000s, Bend It Like Beckham, a movie that is dominated by women and their desire for independence, the female lead, Jess, aspires to be like David Beckham and her bedroom walls are covered with his picture. There is no female alternative.

While I admit that there is less interest among women in general about soccer, there are blatant inequalities in sports that interest men and women equally. For example, for years there was a striking difference in the prize money awarded to the female winners at Wimbledon in comparison to what was awarded to the male players. From 2007, the decision was made to award the same money for both events although many still argue that women should win less money as they only play three sets.

This issue is one that is often debated during panel discussions about inequality in sport. At the National Media Conference held last November, Cliona Foley of the Irish Independent noted that there needs to be a change in the societal perception that men know something about sport that women don’t. She also noted that women are very rarely assigned to cover or analyse men’s sports and this makes it even harder for women to break into sports journalism. A similar point was made at the UCC Journalism conference held last month, where the current Interiors Editor of the Irish Examiner, Esther McCarthy, spoke about how she was always pushed to write ‘pink’ features such a beauty or fashion pieces even though she repeatedly asked to cover sporting events. She played five-a-side soccer and had an avid interest in both the local and international leagues and yet was never allowed to cover them.

It can’t be that there are tiny numbers of women who are interested in sport and want to watch other women play or even report on it. It should not be about comparing female athletes to their male counterparts, their should be a recognition and respect for what they achieve within their own leagues. For the most part, the lack of interest in female sports teams or individuals is due to the constructs of gender in our society and how this structural inequality is then disseminated by the media and society across the board. If the same machinery was put behind the Irish women’s rugby team, I don’t believe we’d be switching over to the France v. Scotland game and wouldn’t it be great to see the same send-off that Brian O’Driscoll received on Saturday awarded to a woman and she was able to walk laps of the pitch in pride with her child in her arms.