Journalist and presenter Joanne Cantwell has been one of the TV and radio success stories for RTÉ Sport this year, anchoring Olympic and Paralympic Games coverage in an authoritative and no-nonsense style that has become her trademark.
Q: 2016 was a big year for Irish sport. How was it for you?
A: It was brilliant. For me, it started with the K Club and Rory McIlroy’s win. It was definitely one of my highlights of the year, especially given how much he has done for the Irish Open and how little credit he gets for sacrificing his own game for that. It went through the summer then with the Euros and Robbie Brady’s goal. From a Gaelic games point of view, the Tipperary footballers’ performance in Croke Park to beat Galway was one of the best sporting occasions I’ve ever been at, despite the fact there weren’t that many Tipperary fans there to cheer them on. It’s just the type of football they played... I remember having a smile on my face the whole time. Then there was the Olympics and two Cork boys, Annalise Murphy, Thomas Barr… For me, Scott Evans stood out along with the other three because of his story and what he has had to sacrifice. And then there were so many incredible performances in the Paralympics and athletes who stood out for what they did. From Phil Eaglesham, the shooter who had the campaign to get people aware about depression, to Paul Keogan who is one of the most inspirational people I’ve ever read about.
Q: You got very positive feedback for your Rio coverage. That must mean a lot, especially following in the footsteps of Bill O’Herlihy…
A: To be honest, it felt a little bit uncomfortable. It’s obviously great getting praise, but for every bit of praise there’s plenty of criticism. Being on TV means it may be spoken about more, but people talking about journalists that way doesn’t sit comfortably with me. I’d much rather get praise than the other, but I’ve got plenty of the other as well. I just prefer to knuckle down and get on with it.
Q: You were in studio for the O’Donovans’ medal, Barr’s fourth place and Conlan’s controversy. What’s the biggest challenge of covering those events on live TV?
A: The biggest challenge is providing balance. The hardest one was Michael Conlan because you have to give all sides of the story. When it seemed so obvious to the pundits and everybody he had been robbed, it’s really difficult to try to get the right note, create that balance and make sure emotion isn’t entirely taking over, while not playing devil’s advocate just for the sake of it.
Q: What was your favourite TV moment and what was the best piece of TV that you were involved in this year?
A: It was probably having Jessie Barr in studio for Thomas Barr’s final. I think we missed how huge what he did was to get to a sprint final at an Olympic Games, and having been injured as well. What he did was incredible and we had his sister in studio, who was convinced he was going to get a medal. When he just missed out, but had run this incredible time, she was literally going back and forth between the emotions of disappointment and pride. They showed shots afterwards of Jessie watching the race, but another moment they didn’t show was when he crossed the finish line and we realised he had come fourth, there was just this silence from Jessie, because she was so sad. I had to get ready for when we came back to studio, but there was this moment when Derval O’Rourke got off her seat, went over, put her arms around her, I don’t think she even said anything, and sat back down… It was just the loveliest of moments and that’s what the Thomas Barr story was – it was human.
Q: You’ve mentioned McIlroy and Barr not getting the recognition they deserve and they were also left out of the RTÉ Sportsperson of the Year nominees. Was the criticism of the shortlist fair?
A: It’s an impossible task! They are never going to get it right because there are so many people you could throw in and justify having in over someone else, and then everybody else would get annoyed. I’m glad I didn’t have anything to do with it, but I think even the people who did come up with it would say the criticism was justified because, I wasn’t at the meeting, but I know there were massive arguments and disagreements. I think they spoke at length, and at length, and at length before they came up with this list. So the criticism is justified but they know that.
Q: What are your thoughts on the proposal for 30% gender quotas on sporting boards?
A: In theory, I’m totally against quotas because I’m all about justice and fairness. But it is so important we get proper balance across all of society, whether it’s sporting organisations or anything else, because people think differently. Women think differently to men and your cultural background makes a difference a lot of the time to how you think about things. No matter what organisation in society, in order for the fairest decision to be made, you need balance. So even though I hate the idea of quotas, I hate the lack of balance that there is and has always been. I would take the lesser evil of quotas, if there’s a chance it might fix the problem. If there was any other way they could do it other than quotas, I’d go for that first, but it hasn’t happened so far, and it’s a long time coming.
Q: Was there a lot of excitement in RTÉ after the GAA media rights announcement?
A: Definitely. You want to be working in live sport and it’s important as the national broadcaster we deliver it. There is a long association between RTÉ and hurling, football, women’s football and camogie, so it’s huge, especially for the radio. Everybody is excited and pleased, and very relieved as well.
Q: Did all the praise for Newstalk’s coverage after their loss of rights feel like a challenge to RTÉ to prove its worth next year?
A: We should always be challenged. We have strong competitors all around us so we should always be trying to get better regardless. If the game moves on, that means our coverage needs to move on. Clearly Gaelic games has changed so much, particularly over the last 15 years, we need to move with it. Whether they get praise or not, we should recognise what they are doing and what they have done, and try to build on that and get better all the time.
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