Looking back now, the man in the optician’s shop probably didn’t mean anything by what he said, but it was still an own goal of massive proportions.
He was yammering on in a blandly engaged way about kids, and his friend’s kids, and their interest in sport, and how you could tire the kids out by getting them to play sport, and so on.
“Another one of my pals has four girls,” he eventually said.
“Ironically enough, as he’s a big sports fan.”
To be fair, the stunned silence this provoked from his audience led to a good deal of back-pedalling and qualification of the original statement. Can’t recall if the words ‘why, some of my most sports-loving friends are themselves women’ were used, but they were certainly implied.
(The misuse of ‘ironically’ we take as further evidence of grammatical shoddiness, of course). My pal from the opticians certainly came to mind as Katie Taylor collected her fourth world title in China last Saturday.
It may be a different form of prejudice to unthinking misogyny, but past experience — you need only ask Joe Ward about it — means that even the hottest favourites are not assured of justice in far-flung boxing tournaments, so until you see the medal going around the neck, you can’t be confident the best boxer will get his or her just reward.
Taylor duly came through, however, and collected yet another world title. If she hung up her gloves today, she would already be on a short list of our greatest sports people ever, a list which has another woman, Sonia O’Sullivan in and around the top slot.
But Taylor won’t be calling it quits for a few months yet, at least. The Olympics may not be the feast of innocent sporting joy we once thought, but when it comes to global focus and recognition, it’s the only show in town. Taylor goes to London now as our top gold medal hope.
A couple of years ago we spent a fascinating hour in the company of Gary Keegan, director at the Irish Institute of Sport and former performance director at the Irish Amateur Boxing Association Even then, he spoke about the pressure on Taylor’s shoulders.
“There is a real issue in managing the level of expectation when it comes to Katie,” said Keegan then. “The world of boxing has changed and one significant thing she’ll face, which no other Irish athlete will face, is the level of pressure in her weight division. There are only three weight divisions for women’s boxing in London.
“That means those who can do so — in the weight division above her and the division below her — will converge on her division. The best in the world at 64kg and 57kg will move to confront her at 60kg, which increases the quality of individual competing by 200%.”
Even then, however, the boxer wasn’t distracted by the level of expectation.
“She’s very good at saying she doesn’t try to manage external expectations, that she can only focus on what she can do,” said Keegan.
“It’s important to give her the right support structures. She has a very strong family structure — something we forget about in terms of support for a lot of our sports people. She has a phenomenal coach in her dad (Peter), a true world-class Irish coach. There are few role models like her in the country, in sport or business or whatever. She’s phenomenal. She’s also managed her own development on the basis her own sport is changing — she’s stayed innovative and creative, never complacent. She is always looking at ways to become better, because she knows the opposition are always looking at how to beat her.
“She’s extraordinary in understanding the importance of her preparation, and that’s where her confidence comes from.”
Katie Taylor’s control extends far beyond her training environment — her success has moved women’s sport beyond its niche and our expectations for her don’t come with qualifications. Changing attitudes may be her lasting achievement.
Note: My attention has been drawn to various tweets and messageboard commentary on last Friday’s Limerick hurling press night. Contrary to some more excitable contributions on said matter, the press were present at said press night. I was, anyway. I’m not privy to the inner workings of the Limerick County Board but I can reveal how I came to be in the Greenhills Hotel (Davin Suite) last Friday. I rang the board and asked if there were any arrangements, simple. Further questions to the usual address.
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