Let’s not stand still on what women in sport can achieve

Hortazelda Stadium in Madrid was an unlikely microcosm of the camogie world in 2017.

Let’s not stand still on what women in sport can achieve

The 2017 All Stars’ goalkeeper, Aoife Murray, audaciously stood against the right upright of the rugby goalpost, leaving an open goal of 5.6 metres to her left.

Orla Cotter, playing on the 2016 All Stars’ opposition, lifts and drives the penalty shot. Body and hurley are one as Murray extended full stretch as far as the other goalpost. With pinpoint accuracy, the ash and leather connected in a shot block. That cameo of Murray and Cotter’s one-on-one penalty, typical in hurling but not allowed in camogie, stands out for me as a powerful indicator of the continuously increasing technical skill, capability, and athleticism of camogie players.

Standing still was not an option for Murray.

It’s not an option for women in sport either.

Athletes, like Murray and Cotter, or, Para-Olympian Orla Barry, international rugby player Niamh Briggs, Cork Camogie captain Rena Buckley, jockey Nina Carbery, horse trainer Jessica Harrington, boxer Katie Taylor, Olympian sailor Annalise Murphy, rower Denise Walsh, referee Joy Neville and, before them camogie legends the Downey sisters, Angela and Ann, and once in a generation athletes Maeve Kyle and Sonia O’Sullivan, best demonstrate that boundaries and glass ceilings are there to be broken.

These athletes reflect a diversity of individual and team sport, professional and amateur sport, track and field sport, water sport, indigenous and Olympic sport. In the latter, Ronnie Delany’s gold medal in the 1,500m in the 1956 Olympics is well recounted. Little noted from those Games is that Kyle became Ireland’s first female track athlete at the Melbourne Games. It took another eight years before the Olympic movement recognised team based sport played by women when volleyball was included in the 1964 programme.

Today, there is more recognition of women in sport than ever. Media exposure is better. Awards and recognition is better. Attendances are better. Coaching standards are better. Technical skill and entertainment value are better. Financial investment is better. Participation rates are better - though variable - and highest when females are younger. Within Camogie, our past year reflects all these welcome developments. We have had nine inspiring achievements – at least!

1. The rivalry of Cork and Kilkenny in the All-Ireland final thrilled to the final minute. When Rena Buckley raised the O’Duffy Cup she made history becoming the first player across camogie, hurling and football to win 18 All-Ireland medals while Cork moved to top the national roll of honour with 27 titles.

2. We enjoyed the most competitive senior championship in our history. Each game mattered. The All-Ireland senior championship, run on an open-draw basis with two groups, went down to the wire. In the last round, each of the 10 teams were in contention for the knock-out stages.

3. Meath and Westmeath emerged to win their first All-Ireland titles at Intermediate and Premier Junior levels.

4. Players’ achievements were recognised in the inaugural Liberty Insurance All Star Tour to Madrid.

5. Intercounty players received a boost through a €500,000 financial investment from the inaugural Government Grant Scheme for Intercounty camogie and football players. A similar investment will be made in 2018.

6. For the first time, all the knockout stages of the All-Ireland senior championship were broadcast live on RTÉ TV.

7. The All-Ireland senior camogie final was designated as free-to-air TV by the government.

8. 20,793 people witnessed the highest-attended All-Ireland camogie finals in September since the triple headers (senior, intermediate and premier junior grades) were introduced in Croke Park in 2010.

9. We expanded grassroots initiatives that support participation, achieved new club growth with 600 clubs playing at home and internationally and published guidelines with the GAA and LGFA to promote a unified approach to administering games through the One Club Model.

These are all milestones in growing our sport. They are achieved in an environment where unfair gender differentials are still evident not just in sport, but across society. Research shows Irish people with daughters are less likely to participate in sport with their children than those with sons. And parents of daughters have a less favourable opinion of their child’s sporting ability than parents of sons. For girls, for women, and for society, it’s vital to challenge these attitudes and behaviours. Fairer attitudes and actions will add to the momentum where women and the communities and families that we live in, contribute more and benefit more from what sport offers.

Let’s not stand still on what women in sport can achieve.

Let’s support sport for all – for everyone’s benefit.

Joan O’Flynn is ard stiúrthóír of the Camogie Association

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