Ladies made lasting Olympic impression

Well, goodbye and good riddance to that week and no mistake.

With the Olympics over, Monday morning reverted to, well, just plain old Monday morning. No hopping, jumping or skipping. No diving, swimming or falling. Just the usual gossiping and shouting we normally see on our daytime TV screens, reruns of Murder She Wrote and endless hours of Come Dine With Me. Ho hum.

There’s lots more reasons besides for lamenting the loss of the games for another four years. Much though we love the game, the temporary escape they provided from the hegemony of soccer has to be chief among them. Up there, too, is the knowledge we will revert once again to sport’s patriarchal status quo where women are rarely seen or heard.

So let’s pause and reflect on what we saw for a tad longer.

A selection of just a handful of names are enough. Katie Taylor’s story we know. Then there was Jessica Ennis, whose heptathlon gold capped a remarkable Saturday night for Team GB at the Olympic Park, America’s swimming sensation Missy Franklin and Australia’s Sally Pearson, who celebrated her 100m hurdles gold with such abandon.

Team sports chipped in, too, whether it was the USA footballer’s sensational semi-final extra-time defeat of Canada whom they trailed three times, Brazil’s late-night volleyball thriller against Turkey at Earls Court, which delivered a ridiculous amount of rallies, drama and colour or the unbeatable tandem that was beach volleyball’s Misty-May Treanor and Kerri Walsh, who proved their game is much more than a sporty version of Baywatch.

So central were female competitors to the American effort, in fact, that they won well over half of their table-topping haul of 104 medals and that ratio rose to approximately two-thirds for golds alone. And it wasn’t just the US. Russia and China’s successes were weighed in favour of the women’s events as well, but it went way beyond the podium.

London was as much about Saudi Arabia fielding their first ever female athletes and Malaysia’s Sarah Attar, who won an archery bronze whilst eight months pregnant. With women’s boxing brought on board, this was the first Games where women were represented in every sport and by every country. In that, it was following a slow but steady and encouraging pattern.

As everyone knows, women weren’t permitted to take part in the Ancient Olympics and it’s modern counterpart ‘honoured’ that tradition when the global festival of sport was resurrected by Pierre de Coubertin and held in Athens in 1896 when the field was limited to 245 men. Four years later and the fairer sex was allowed to take part when the five rings rolled into Paris. Grudgingly, if the numbers alone are anything to go by. Out of a list of 1,225 athletes, only 19 were women. Or 1.55% of the total. In St. Louis, in 1904, that percentage actually shrank to 0.88% and the climb towards something like equality has been a long and consistent but very often a slow process with a handful of leaps forward giving the process a much-needed injection of pace. One of those advances came in Amsterdam in 1928 when the amount of women doubled from 4.4% of the field to 9.62% — it was the first time they were allowed participate in track and field — but it wouldn’t be until Helsinki in 1952 that they would make up even 10% of the total.

The next significant breakthrough had to wait 24 years when 20.68% of the participants were female and there was another bump 20 years later in Atlanta when the figure rose 6% in the space of one four-year cycle. The number for Beijing was 42% and that will have climbed again this summer.

It’s what happens between those fortnightly, four-year windows that should concentrate minds now. Women’s sports continue to suffer, not so much from a bad press, as the lack of one at all according to recent studies which suggest that they receive just 5% of media coverage outside of the Games themselves and 0.5% of sponsorship monies.

Joan O’Flynn, president of the camogie association, wrote in these pages last September that an analysis of the Irish market showed that, of 6,503 photos of sports people in six national newspapers in a given period, only 78 (1.2%) were photos of sports women.

The same analysis showed that in the five years of the research the prevalence of sports photos featuring women reached a peak of 3% and that lack of visible role models for young girls is something Donna Lopiano, a renowned advocate of female sports in the US and former athlete in her own right, has remarked upon in the past.

“Boys grow up watching television, bombarded by heroic and confident images of themselves playing sports and being revered for their accomplishments,” she wrote.

“They know they are expected to play sports and are encouraged to do so by everyone around them. Girls do not receive these messages.”

Not for the most part, anyway. Sure, Ladies football and camogie will have their days in Croke Park and most of us will give an afternoon or two to the women’s singles at Wimbledon or a medal-winning performance by one of our athletes or swimmers but that’s about it.

Roll on Rio.

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