Deirdre Verney: Opinion Column
Derval O’Rourke is a gutsy runner I’ve admired for years for her performances at major championships on the athletics stage.
Off the track, she’s never been afraid to speak her mind either, be it her own performance or that of the powers be in the athletics world in an passionate and engaging manner. The one thing you generally get with the Cork native is honesty rather than the usual say nothing clichés, so when she speaks you generally listen and take notice of an eloquent voice for change.
And that’s certainly what I did this week after reading her thought provoking column in the Irish Examiner, essentially a battle cry for women’s sport to be taken seriously in modern Ireland. She hit the nail on the head as far as I’m concerned when she spoke of often feeling like she is part of some kind of secret club in women’s sport. And in so doing, she opened up a badly-needed debate that needs to happen in this country in relation to the coverage of female sporting endeavours.
“You could be forgiven for thinking not very many women actually take part in competitive sport. We don’t fill the sports pages of newspapers nor do we grace TV screens every weekend,” the Cork athlete maintains.
Okay, not as many women play sport as the menfolk of this country, but then I’d wager the coverage of the girls doesn’t reflect proportionately the numbers across all types of media either.
A random perusal of the Irish Independent on Saturday showed the sports articles quota hit 44 for male sport and just two for female, namely rugby and golf, growing sports for women in this country. What hope have you then if you are a girl rowing, playing hockey or newer pursuits like the growing sport of all female sport of roller derby, one I’m familiar with because my own sister is part of a team.
Derval O’Rourke rightly points to the fact that female sportspeople are viewed differently from the off, not just by men but also by other women, who judge their physical appearance first and their talent or dedication, a poor second. The only body type allowed is a slender one, muscles or strength are ridiculed and only men receive the plaudits for being strong and fit.
More of an advocate of the 'strong is the new skinny’ adage, the popular athlete calls for an even playing field for female athletes, who need to be judged on their performance, rather than how feminine they look, their body type or what way they wear their hair. Interestingly, she quotes a BT Sport survey of 110 British female athletes across 20 different sports which revealed 67% believe the public and media value looks more than achievement.
That’s pretty depressing, but hard to argue with when you look at the coverage female sports get across all media platforms and the difficulties each face securing more prominence. Of course, popular sports must be covered as the public interest demands, but how does women’s sport grow without the exposure? It leaves female sport in a catch-22 situation when all the public want is accessibility.
Maybe I’m naive but I believe if you make it easy for the Irish public, who are in main sports mad, to follow women’s sport they will, and the interest grows from there. Two examples I can think of are the league coverage in recent years of Ladies football on TG4 which has drawn in new viewers and admirers (me for one with no football background) and WTA tennis (okay it’s professional) but the exposure works. Interest in fitness, running, cycling, triathlons and so on is huge at the moment (note the rise of the 'Fit magazine’ which caters for the elite and non-elite woman in the Irish Independent every week). This kind of coverage could be replicated for other female pursuits too.
One of the main reasons behind the lack of coverage seems to be sheer inequality. Derval O’Rourke addresses this when she alludes to the notion that women’s sport is discounted because it’s doesn’t have the same skill level as the menfolk and that its team sports are not as strong or fast as their male counterparts. Rightly, the sprinter dubs it a completely unfair argument in this day and age.
“Take athletics, the men are obviously faster than the women but the coverage is equal and the women’s events are judged for their own merit. When Jessica Ennis lit up the Olympic Stadium, it was one of the greatest moments of the Olympic Games, there was no hushed discussion of her achievement being mediocre compared to a man,” she said.
Yes, I know by writing this I’ll be dubbed a rabid man-hating feminist (not true) and that I’ll be told well women themselves don’t support their own sports, an argument possibly valid in the past, but one that I think is actually changing as girls admire and follow people like Katie Taylor, Fionnuala Britton and plenty of other female sporting stars closer to home. In any event, why not cater for those who are interested in sport rather than complain about the ones who are not?
Whatever the case, I believe women training and competing every week deserve a moment in the sun like everyone else. Of course, us girls can help improve things too by getting involved in the administration of local sport, promoting it through better local PR campaigns, telling people what their girls are up to, when the matches take place and generally speaking up a bit, something that doesn’t always naturally to some of the female of the species.
But change does need cooperation too, take a situation where the all-conquering women’s rugby team get to play in the Aviva on the same bill as the men as is happening this year, something that would be unthinkable a decade ago.
Let’s hope Derval’s 'secret club’ of competitive women is something when we can consign to history shortly too.