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Why 2019 is the year to throw your support behind women's sports

“Sport isn’t a boys’ club. It’s for everyone.”

FOR AS LONG as I can remember, I have been a sports fan. While I don’t possess an athletic bone in my body, there is little I love more than plonking myself on the couch and watching some sort of sporting event. Athletics, swimming, tennis, GAA, soccer, rugby, gymnastics, darts, speed skating – I will watch damn near anything.

As a child, I remember watching gymnast Amy Chow compete in the 1996 Olympic Games and being utterly mesmerised. Perhaps it was something to do with the fact that we shared the same name and I was all of four years old, but I recall being in awe of her grace and agility as she competed on the uneven bars. It was likely one of my first exposures to competitive sport and ranks among my earliest sporting memories. 

As I grew older, my love of sport deepened. I can remember running laps around my garden and attempting to do my best impression of Sonia O’Sullivan after she finally won her elusive Olympic medal. I can remember sitting indoors at the height of the summer and feeling conflicted over whether to shout for Serena or Venus in the Wimbledon final. I can remember leaving an outing with friends in town to go home and watch the World Swimming Championships on Eurosport. I was nothing if not dedicated. 

Throughout my childhood and adolescence, my three favourite sports to watch were tennis, athletics and swimming. The Williams sisters, Paula Radcliffe, Inge de Bruijn, Maria Mutola, Justine Henin, Amelie Mauresmo – these were my sporting heroes. For a long time, I assumed that was because I had a preference for individual sports.

Recently, however, it occurred to me that the main reason I gravitated towards those sports was not out of any distaste for team pursuits, but because they were among the only sports which afforded women the same visibility and prominence as their male peers.

Don’t get me wrong. I watched soccer, hurling, Gaelic football and other traditionally male-dominated sports, too. But the sports I connected with most deeply were the ones in which women were placed front and centre. Had women’s soccer, women’s rugby, camogie, or ladies’ football received even a fraction of the coverage of the men’s games, then I have no doubt but that I would have been invested in those, too.

For far too long, these sports have been relegated to the background, the presumption being that there is little appetite for or interest in women’s sports. Thankfully we seem to be in the midst of a cultural shift. Television coverage of women’s sports is on the increase. Attendance is on the rise with over 50,000 present in Croke Park for last year’s ladies football final. The likes of Stephanie Roche, Cora Staunton and Niamh Briggs are now bona fide household names. 

But we still have ways to go. Perceptions to be shattered and stereotypes to be challenged. That’s why something like the 20×20 movement is so important. Launched last year, the initiative wants to see a 20% increase in media coverage of women in sport; a 20% increase in female participation in all levels of sports; and a 20% increase in attendance at women’s games and sports.

These are modest enough aims that, if achieved, will make an untold difference to women’s sports in Ireland. Not only will it help foster a greater appreciation of our sportswomen, but it will legitimise women’s sports and put to bed any talk of them being inherently inferior to men’s sports.

We pride ourselves on being a great sporting nation. Isn’t it time that young girls saw themselves reflected on the sporting stage? Just as I once marveled at the exploits of Amy Chow, I want young girls to have someone to shout for and feel inspired by. After all, sport isn’t a boys’ club. It’s for everyone.

What you can do:

  • Diversify your social media feeds If you’re a sports fan, make sure you follow more sportswomen and female sportswriters. Some of my favourite accounts and women’s sports advocates include Fair Game, SLOWE, Anna Kessel and Off The Bench.
  • Make a pledge to attend a women’s sports fixture Whether it’s a hockey match or a rugby fixture, there are plenty of women’s sports events happening in Ireland in 2019. Consult Elaine Buckley’s excellent guide here
  • Read some women’s sports books Want to brush up on your knowledge of women’s sporting icons? There are any amount of female sporting biographies and non-fiction books just crying out to be read. Think Game Changer by Cora Staunton or The Unsung Heroines by Molly Schiot.

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