Kate Sadleir was weighed down with boxes and brochures when she finished her business at the Irish Georgian Society on Dublin’s South William Street last Tuesday. The decision to flag a taxi for the kilometre ride across the city to her offices on Lower Pembroke Street was a no-brainer.
Her driver, conforming to cliché, proved to be an inquisitive type. What, he wondered, did she have in all those boxes? And so Sadleir, World Rugby’s women’s game development manager, explained that it was material to do with the global launch she had just attended for ‘Women In Rugby’.
“Rugby?” the cabbie replied. “Women shouldn’t play rugby.” Sadleir didn’t baulk. She had heard this nonsense before. Time and again. Three years or so in the role have taken her all over the world to spread the gospel so the Kiwi has witnessed first-hand the obstacles girls and women have to overcome simply to play the game they love in countries as diverse as Egypt, Venezuela, India ... and Ireland.
“Close to home there are countries where people in high levels don’t believe that girls should be playing rugby,” said Sadleir, a former Olympian in synchronised swimming who was speaking at the Federation of Irish Sport’s annual conference in Dublin City University where inclusivity was the theme.
The numbers of women playing rugby have mushroomed in recent years — there are, somewhat surprisingly, 5,000 in Iran alone — but the war between outdated social norms and beliefs and a modern, enlightened thought process that prioritises sport for all regardless of gender, race, religion or ability is still being waged. Sweta Shahi’s story embodies that.
A 19-year-old international sevens player with India, she was spotted at an athletics meet in her state of Bihar in the country’s north-east. Rugby was an alien concept but she taught herself the basics and, with the support of her father and grandfather, built herself a career.
Shahi used to spend hours learning moves and aping techniques she saw on YouTube. Now she’s the one providing the inspiration. A video telling her story, Start Rugby. Become Unstoppable, registered 1.6m hits in its first 24 hours online this week but not everyone is happy with that.
Shahi’s sister was married at 18 and now, six years later, has two children. Her uncle just can’t compute the steps his younger niece has chosen and still begs her to give up the sport. Promises have been made for her future if she does.
“My uncle still says, ‘who will marry you if you play rugby?’ she has said.
Yesterday’s conference was awash with these personal testimonies and speakers who laid bare the lengths sport and society have travelled and the distance they still have to travel together. The GAA’s Colin Regan spoke about healthy clubs. Gareth Thomas laid bare his soul as a gay rugby player. Piara Power, of Football Against Racism in Europe, was another speaker.
It was Jon Morgan, a former CEO with Disability Sport Wales who is now working with Cara in Ireland, who asked one of the day’s most searching questions in over seven hours of debate at The Helix in DCU.
Namely: ‘Is sport really an inclusive sector?’
What’s clear is that the answer for too long was a resounding no. Ryan Jones, the former Wales flanker who is now the WRU’s performance director, has put it well when he said that the union had always been world-class at delivering games for white males who wanted to play on Saturday afternoons.
The rest? Maybe not so hot — and the WRU was no outlier in that. Another speaker from the Principality made the point that the population of Wales is just north of three million and 23% of them have an impairment of some kind. That’s almost 700,000 people. Are we really doing enough in sport for this huge chunk of society?
Morgan’s ambition is for organisations like Cara, a national body whose aim is to increase sports and activity opportunities for people with disabiities, to all but make themselves redundant. For disability sport to be embraced into the mainstream culture and everyday fabric of sport as a whole.
“There is a need to change the way we think,” Morgan explained.
Take the term ‘disability sport community’. Are they people who live in a separate enclave in a part of Ireland? They are people who live among us and need to be integrated. So many kids go to mainstream schools now. They want to play sport with their friends too.
This is not about giant leaps but rather small steps.
A Sport Disability Inclusion Charter was launched in Ireland in December of last year and already has 145 organisations signed up. It is a blueprint that stresses the importance of small gestures. Is that gym mat suitable for users with physical impairments? How do you engage properly when someone with vision impairment asks to use the facility or join the club?
Small gestures can equate to big deals. Trevor Ringland, the Unionist politician and former Ireland rugby player, spoke about the powerful message that the late Danny Murphy, Burren clubman and secretary of Ulster GAA, sent when he spoke about how he wanted all the people of Down to support the county team.
“If we get sport right it will permeate right through society,” said Morgan.