THIS year is shaping up to be a big one for Mary O’Connor, who wants women’s sport to take advantage of what she calls a “perfect storm”.
The Killeagh native, winner of seven All-Ireland senior camogie medals and five in ladies’ football, is the CEO of the Federation of Irish Sport, which is leading the ‘20x20’ initiative, which aims to help women’s sports grow and develop.
Sports have been encouraged to aim for improvements of 20 percent under three headings and O’Connor is playing a key role. She is aware that there is an opportunity there, but it won’t last forever.
“I think we have a finite length of time where this argument is valid, if I’m being very honest,” she says.
“We have a huge opportunity now, on the world stage there are things happening with women in sport and the time is now to make sure we have systems in place that we can’t go backwards.
“Women’s sport in Ireland is in a good place but can it get better? Absolutely, there’s appetite for it and people don’t see it as a threat anymore.
“We know there are challenges but we need to be looking at solutions and how we’re going to get there rather than continually going back over old ground.” That’s why 20x20 is so important.
“The campaign was launched in October 2018 and we had 71 national governing bodies [NGBs] and local sports partnerships signed up,” O’Connor says.
“There were three headings — media coverage, participation or attendances at games — and they all signed up to at least one of those, or in some instances all three, and they would have a plan for how to achieve the stated goals.
“Then, in 2019 Sport Ireland appointed Nora Stapleton and brought out their Women in Sport Policy and Women in Sport funding. Those three things will complement 20x20 and vice versa, because the policy is going to have outcomes.
“The governing bodies will be able to really fine-tune their targets now because they have the resources and some of them have taken on Women in Sport Officers to drive that and that’s important.
“Nobody in the country owns ‘women in sport’ and 20x20 doesn’t either, but what we’re trying to do is create a platform where real conversations take place and provide strength in unity.”
In terms of Gaelic games, O’Connor acknowledges recent developments but wants to see a move away from what she calls “scoreboard journalism”.
“Ladies’ football has been on an upward curve for a number of years,” she says.
“Camogie is maybe caught slightly in the sense of the same teams getting to final, whereas football has had one team consistently getting to the final but against different finalist.
“I think the point to make is that ladies’ football isn’t even 50 years old yet and look what has been achieved, especially in the last five or six years, and obviously this year again there was a record-breaking crowd.
“While the standard of football in the final wasn’t fantastic, that shouldn’t take away from the calibre of football all year, particularly the semi-finals, which were very good to watch as a spectacle.
“I think, the more exposure those games outside of finals get, the more important it is. I was playing up until 2010 and up until 2006 and 2007, only the All-Ireland camogie final was shown live and if it happened to be a poor game, that defined people’s perceptions.
“We have to be able to criticise as well as admire the players and not just put them up there.
“It’s something Rena Buckley has said previously and I would have gone on record with it, I don’t think any player wants scoreboard journalism. When I played camogie with Cork, I was a back and the backs were never mentioned, only the scorers.
“Only by actually covering the games in a bit more detail and critiquing the players, that will create a bit more seriousness around them.”
In Cork, there are a number of advantages compared to other counties.
“It’s something I’ve often thought about,” O’Connor says.
“Obviously, Cork has a strong Gaelic games background but also a strong background across a number of sports, real diversity. That tradition is there and we’re lucky to have it.
“There’s a huge amount of volunteers doing untold work, that happens in every county but in Cork there’s a greater opportunity to try so many sports.
“Sports complement each other then and there’s world champion or international competitor who hasn’t been affected by a coach as a volunteer.
“It’s really important from a female point of view that Cork girls have the opportunity to play a multitude of sports and if they’re specialising in one sport they get to play at schools, colleges, club and county level.
“We almost take that for granted, if you’re from another county, you mightn’t get those opportunities.
“We’re also fortunate in that we have a huge population, we have a wide base so it’s broader at the top.
“In the last few years, I’ve been heartened that Cork underage teams have become successful again and I don’t think we can underestimate the importance of that.
“Senior teams need a conveyor belt and if you lose a few, you need players coming in who have had success.
“When I played football for Cork, there was me, Juliet [Murphy] and Val [Valerie Mulcahy], who had won nothing underage but you had Angela [Walsh], Bríd [Stack], Briege [Corkery], Rena [Buckley], who had won a lot and feared nobody, it was a perfect storm coming together.”