The election of Sarah Keane as Olympic Council of Ireland President last week — not the foregone conclusion one might have thought, despite her qualifications — shone like a light in the darkness of recent developments in sports.
Or sports governance to be exact.
Yours truly, along with several others, was invited via social media — ‘called out’, is the kids term — to describe Keane’s election as ‘Mother of three replaces father of four’, and the person issuing that invitation was Dr Katie Liston of the University of Ulster, so I felt a phone call was in order.
“Aside from the gender aspect, Sarah’s election is a welcome move in terms of reform,” Liston told me.
“We’ve also had a change in the vice-presidency, so clearly there’s an appetite for change among the various sports federations.
“Whether that’s happened by design in terms of gender, I’d doubt — it’s probably more to do with the legacy of what’s happened recently with the OCI — but it’s certainly good to see someone elected to that post on merit.
“In a logical world, for instance, one couldn’t see how someone with Sarah’s qualifications could be overlooked — a qualified solicitor with specific governance experience, in addition to very recent upskilling in sports governance as well.
“It would have been awful if she hadn’t been elected.”
Keane’s comments on her election were also notable for Liston.
“She said she was there to serve, which to me is a significant shift in terms of leadership — that she’s there to serve the organisation, and I think she’ll be able to do that openly and transparently.”
It’s also encouraging to have a woman heading up the nation’s Olympic body, but Liston sounded a note of warning as well: “Clearly there’s a need to think formally about gender balance.
“If we’re serious about cultural change, the only way that can happen is if you live it and practice it every day. The research behind gender quotas is well placed because of that. It doesn’t happen by accident.
“We’ll have very good news stories like Sarah’s but she, and others, will tell you that those are coming because she and other have pushed against the system.
“You can have a situation where women are in high- profile roles and yet be generally under-represented in an organisation or range of organisations. That’s what we have here. Sarah has reached the pinnacle, but that certainly isn’t a reason for us all to pat ourselves on the back and say ‘everything’s okay now’.”
True enough, whether you’re being called out or not.
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