Women – still the poor relation when it comes to sport?

My second column for the Mayo News, published on 19th August 2014

Two weeks ago, prior to the Mayo vs. Cork All-Ireland quarter final, I took part in a pre-recorded interview on a local radio sports show. The conversation covered a lot – the game, our prospects of victory and the role supporters might play on the day. After the interview was aired, a panellist on the show expressed his delight at a woman offering a strong, constructive opinion on sport. It was good to hear, he said, because for too long we’ve been in the background, making the tea and sandwiches. It was time we were heard. I’m paraphrasing here, and it made me smile as I’ve no doubt it was said with the best of intentions, but it got me thinking. In a supposedly equal society, have we really only come this far?

Discussion of women in sport has come to the fore recently, due in no small part to the Republic of Ireland reaching the semi-finals of the UEFA U19 Championships, and the heroic passage of the Irish Women’s Rugby team to the World Cup semi-final, beating New Zealand en route. Ticking a box the Irish men yet haven’t, you’d have anticipated that the achievement would merit serious coverage. Indeed, there were features, interviews; they even made some front pages. But what garnered the most publicity for female rugby during this period was a breathtakingly puerile article published in the Sunday Independent, laced with the same stereotypes and tired sexual innuendo that women in sport have endured for decades. Dispatched to a club training session to report, the writer started with some infantile titillation, and enlightened us by insisting that her teammates for the evening were “not butch, masculine, beer-swilling, men-hating women” (a cliché most of us thought had died sometime in the 1980s) who would never dream of gracing the field without make-up. No reference to training schedules, dietary requirements, competitions – anything that might have given the public an insight into the world of women playing competitive sport. Another opportunity missed.

The status of women in the sports world is depressingly predictable. Like in so many other spheres, the primary focus is typically appearance. Women are expected to look well while excelling on the field; and this focus on women’s bodies as opposed to athletic prowess is representative of a damaging societal norm outside sport, where women are constantly objectified. Even as supporters, you’d think women existed purely to enhance the scenery, as the relentless pick-a-pretty-face-in-the-crowd shots during Wimbledon and the World Cup demonstrated. (PervCam, I called it.) It’s actually a miracle there were women at the World Cup at all, given the plethora of advertising aimed at “World Cup Widows” in June. You’d be forgiven for thinking that football was an oestrogen-free zone, despite the fact that global viewership of the last World Cup was over 40% female.

Speaking of which, media coverage of “women’s sport” is tiny, relative to “men’s sport”. (Incidentally, isn’t all just … sport?) It’s a chicken and egg argument. Some will maintain that without media coverage, it’s hard to attract people to the games and build an audience.  The counter-argument insists you can cover as many women’s games as you like, but you can’t force people to care. Part of the attraction of sport is the shared experience – being part of a crowd or community. Therefore until crowds and interest grow, women in sport will be battling for coverage. How do we find out what actually works, unless we try? Though, when so much coverage centres on aesthetics over sport, is there even any point? Indeed, perhaps it’s not even up to the media to promote.  Should sporting bodies themselves not be marketing their own games? Then we’re back to a funding and resourcing argument, and we all know how that goes.

It’s not always easy to put your money where your mouth is, either – take the GAA for example. As a an eternal optimist, I’ve had the men’s semi-final weekend in my diary for six months, so barring a disaster, I’ll be in the Cusack Stand on Sunday supporting Mayo. Last Saturday, when the Mayo Ladies played Cork in the All-Ireland quarter final in Tullamore, the time and venue were announced on Monday, just five days prior to the game. Not ideal.

But times are changing. More female voices are talking sport on our airwaves. Respect and regard is among the public is growing.  It was heartening to see the furious backlash against that Sunday Independent article, when a mere five years ago, it would barely have raised an eyebrow. Even more heartening was that many of the objections came from men.

Sisters may have being doing it for themselves for a long, long time, but it’s good to see we’re finally getting somewhere.

#100HappyDays Day 5 – a new venture

The piece below with a Mayo theme was first published in the newly redesigned Mayo News on 5th August 2014 as an introduction for my new column, titled An Cailín Rua, which will be appearing every two weeks from now on in that fine publication. I’m really delighted to be working alongside such a great team for a paper of which I’ve been a big fan for a long time. 

My name is Anne-Marie, and I am an exile!

It’s been a while since I lived in Mayo. That’s purely by design; sixteen years ago, as soon as I finished school, I packed my bags and hit the road out of Mayo as fast as my legs could carry me. Brighter lights beckoned, the world was waiting and I didn’t look back. Back then, being from a small village in North Mayo felt stifling and restrictive, with nothing to do and nothing to see. Being elsewhere meant freedom and discovery.

It’s been an interesting few years. They’ve brought me around the world, through a couple of colleges, across a spectrum of employment, with a wonderful variety of people. They brought me up the walls and around the bend more than once too. I wouldn’t change much.

For many of those years, Mayo felt distant. Other places started to feel like home. And while I never minded going back, I didn’t mind leaving either. It’s funny, though, as time passes how your perspective changes. (I think it’s called getting old.) After a few years living in the capital, more and more, I find myself craving the slower pace of life of the West. Now, feeling stifled and restricted means traffic jams and long hours at a desk. Freedom and discovery, on the other hand means the mountains and rivers and wide open spaces of home.

Living in the capital isn’t all bad, of course. I’m one of the lucky ones. I have friends here and a decent standard of living and I’m not exactly far from home. The three-hour drive from Dublin to Mayo pales in comparison to the trips home friends working abroad must endure. Friends who, out of necessity, have left their families and are working on the other side of the world to earn a living and build a future for their children. I have a decent job I enjoy with patient, understanding colleagues who tolerate my need to talk relentlessly about GAA for the first hour of every Monday. And I’m a hop, skip and a jump away from Croke Park, which comes in very handy in this glorious era of Mayo football. B&B is in demand, so book early!

Technology, too, makes it so easy now to stay in touch. The internet ensures we can read the local papers, listen to the local radio, and hear the local news. It struck me the other day that I probably now know more about Mayo now than I ever did when I actually lived there. Social media makes it so much easier to be a GAA fan away from home, too – the news, chatter and gossip you’d only have heard on the street or in the pub at home fifteen years ago are now at your fingertips online, and all Mayo exiles scattered around the world, from Sligo to Saudi Arabia can join the conversation. So while you might not be at home to savour the build-up to a big game like last week’s, it’s the next best thing.

Speaking of which, we really are everywhere, we Mayo people. We get around. My work in research takes me all around the country, and last week I found myself driving through Co. Kilkenny. As I rounded the corner into a tiny village called Crettyard, there high outside a house, flying proudly beside the obligatory Kilkenny flag was our very own green and red. I nearly drove into a wall in excitement. I love the comfort of seeing traces of home in unexpected places around the country and further afield, and during the summer I don’t think there’s another county that shows off its colours quite so proudly. And GAA plays such a strong role in Mayo – It’s a part of our identity, our DNA, and it goes far beyond sport, connecting us no matter where we are. (Incidentally, that day I met a Kilkenny person that day that didn’t like hurling. Who knew such a person existed?)

So while one day I know I’ll be back for good, for now I like knowing that no matter where you go, you’re never too far away. Maybe it’s my advancing years; maybe I’m just getting sentimental. Or maybe there’s some truth in the notion that absence makes the heart grow fonder. Either way, I’ve learned over the years that there’s just no place like home.

Cliffs at Ballycastle, Co. Mayo

The short, desperate life of Mariora Rostas

This would break your heart. And it’s a stark reminder of the fact that while we might dismiss certain sectors of our society that they are fighting their own battles, far more than we can ever know.

Philip Boucher-Hayes

Alan Wilson will never again stand trial for the murder of Mariora Rostas. Given the difficulties in getting the case this far it’s doubtful anybody will ever again stand in the dock accused of ending this girls life.

Why this injustice should rankle quite as much as it does is hard to say. Justice denied to the family of any victim, or the memory of that victim diminishes the entire justice system. Perhaps though it is that Mariora was so completely failed by everything in the course of her short life that this last attempt to do right by her is a disappointment that is particularly hard to stomach.

I have reported from Palestinian refugee camps, the squats of migrant Africans in abandoned railroad warehouses, sink estates in Eastern Europe and drug dens in Central America. I have never been as shocked by somebody’s living conditions, though until I went to…

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