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.

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