WHAT a year. A World Cup final, record attendances in Croke Park, medals galore, and a national campaign to increase the coverage of our athletes.
The pinnacle was perhaps the Hockey World Cup, with Ireland picking up silver after losing to the Netherlands in the final. In that moment, the Irish players understood, to a point, what part they had played in history. But it wasn’t until they got back on home soil that they realised the extent to which they lifted a country, and a gender, for that matter.
Boarding the plane home, they danced the conga, and they didn’t stop until they reached Dublin Airport. On Dame Street in the city, they thanked the hundreds who turned out to welcome them home.
But the tears only flowed when the Minister for Sport, Shane Ross, announced there would be a further €1.5 million funding for Irish teams preparing for the 2020 Toyko Olympics. A substantial portion of that would go to Irish women’s hockey, and their exploits were the catalyst for instigating change.
The icing on the cake came when the Irish women’s hockey team was named RTÉ Sport Team of the Year in a public vote last weekend.
A month or so after the hockey team’s heroics, our own Cork ladies football team launched their bid to win back the Brendan Martin Cup. In their way was a fresher, more determined Dublin outfit, who had never beaten the Rebels in Croker on All-Ireland final day.
The elevation of the Dubs as reigning All-Ireland champions had, without question, lifted the interest in the sport in the capital. However, it’s Lidl’s continued investment of the game that’s been the real difference. In May, 2018, the German giant announced a €3 million investment and an additional three-year sponsorship of the Ladies Gaelic Football Association (LGFA). Since 2016, they have invested more than €2.5 million in the game through programmes like Lidl’s Future Stars, Post Primary Schools, and club competitions which drive awareness of the sport across the country.
And so, when it came to All-Ireland final day in September, the attendance record was broken once again, with 50,141 spectators turning out to watch Dublin beat Cork, in what was a three-quarters full stadium.
Then, in athletics there were three golds and a silver brought home by a trio of enormously talented young Irish women in the European Athletics Under-18 Championship in Hungary. Rhasidat Adeleke took gold in the 200m and Sarah Healy won double gold in the 1,500m and 3,000m, with Sophie O’Sullivan —daughter of our own, Sonia — coming second in the 800m.
Just days later, at the U20 worlds in Finland, the 4x100 squad of Gina Akpe-Moses, Patience Jumbo Gula, Ciara Neville, Molly Scott and Adeleke, the latter running in the heats, finished on the second step of the podium, where they were joined by high-jumper Sommer Lecky. And blazing a trail at senior level was 23-year-old Cork woman Phil Healy, who became the first Irish woman to break 23 seconds in the 200m race. There was also Lizzie Lee finishing on the podium of the Dublin Marathon with a time of 2:35:03 — the fastest by an Irish woman in Dublin since 2014.
Then the Cork camogie team won the O’Duffy Cup, and boxer Kellie Harrington secured gold in the 60kg lightweight division at the women’s World Boxing Championships in New Delhi on a split 3-2 decision earlier this month.
Also, Ballincollig-based Sanita Puspure secured a gold medal at the World Rowing Championships in Bulgaria.
But, for all of this success, both at home and abroad, there’s still so much more to fight for. The Federation of Irish Sport’s 20×20 campaign, which is aimed at creating a measurable cultural shift in the presentation and perception of women’s sport in Ireland, has done wonders since it launched in October. It works off three key metrics — to boost media coverage, attendance at key events, and participation, each by 20%, between now and 2020.
However, at that very launch a story surfaced that made us all cringe. It made us shudder because at the crux of it, it made us question whether things had moved on at all.
The 18-time All-Ireland winner Rena Buckley spoke about a club medal presentation she was asked to make in West Cork in 2017. There were boys and girls at the function, but when she got to the venue, the person who invited her as the special guest pulled her aside to tell her she was no longer required to present the boys with the medals. They were an U12 boys team!
She, the most decorated GAA player, ever! Male or female. It was a kick in the stomach, not just for Buckley, but for women in sport across this island. This was 2017, as Buckley pointed out. Yet, here we were, still faced with a mindset that female athletes are inferior. Even if they have 18 senior All-Ireland medals.
Then, in recent weeks, there was the twerking ordeal. Soccer star Ada Hegerberg was announced as the inaugural winner of the women’s Ballon d’Or, an annual French award voted by journalists. The 23-year-old Norwegian — who has a hat-trick of Champions League trophies — broke the record for the most goals in a Champions League season this year, equalling Ronaldo’s 15. She scored 33 goals in 21 games for her fourth league title with Lyon.
But, as she accepted the trophy, signifying a momentous step forward for women’s soccer, she was asked by the presenter, DJ Martin Solveig, to twerk. Yes, twerk. Another kick in the stomach.
For all the good that is being done by the likes of the 20x20 campaign and Irish media outlets and sports foundations alike, we are still faced with an incredibly archaic, sexist and backward outlook.
For me, the latter word is where it gets frustrating. Backward. You do your best. You are the best. Yet, for some, it’s never going to be good enough. Never. You’ll never be an equal.
Let’s hope that in 2019, there will be more steps forward than back for women in sport.