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Promoting women in sport has to be about more than the players

The father of the modern Olympic Games, Pierre de Coubertin, once described women’s sport as an “unaesthetic sight” for the human eye.

He described their participation as “impractical, uninteresting and improper.”  These words came to mind this week watching the USA team retain their FIFA Women’s World Cup title.

It also made me think of the ultimate FIFA clown, Sepp Blatter, and his belief that women’s football would benefit from the players wearing tighter shorts and smaller tops.

FIFA Executive Committee announcement 30/10/2007 Sepp Blatter, President of FIFA Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Getty Images

In my view the most significant feature of the coverage of this event was that people stopped discussing gender and just focused on football.

It was a significant event for creating role models for our children. None more so than Megan Rapinoe, the golden boot winner, who was the figurehead of the US squad both on and off the pitch.

Her public fall out on twitter with ‘The Donald’ was one of the many amusing side shows of the tournament. However, Rapinoe has used her position as a role model to raise some fundamental issues which affect society.

This year Rapinoe her teammates have filed a class action against the US football federation to gain equal pay with their male counterparts.

Budget figures in 2015 showed a $23 million increase in revenue attributed to the women’s team’s World Cup win and victory tour — more than what the men’s team brought in during that time period.

After they won the World Cup in 2015, it was revealed that the US women’s team were paid a quarter of what the men earned. This was despite the women generating $20m more than the men that year.

In Forbes’ ranking of the world’s highest paid athletes, not a single female featured in the top 20, In 2016 the FA Cup was won by Arsenal in both the men’s and women’s tournament, but where the men received £1.8 million in prize money, the women received just £5000. Maybe Rapinoe has a point.

She has also been outspoken on the rights of the individual. She refuses to sing the American national anthem in support of Colin Kaepernicks ‘Take a knee’ stance. “Part of that privilege is representing America, and representing America is representing all of America,” she says.

In response to what she believes is homophobic rhetoric from the Trump administration she said: “You can’t win a championship without gays on your team. It’s never been done before, ever.”

World Golf Championships-Cadillac Championship 10/3/2013 Donald Trump and Tiger Woods Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Getty Images

Interesting timing as there have been calls for the resignation of Felice Belloli, the president of the Italian amateur football association for questioning funding to the Italian Women’s national team as ‘wasting money on a bunch of lesbians’.

I have worked in sports where the standards of treatment and dress code have varied significantly for men and women.

I have always wondered why male gymnasts wear full length pants while their female counterparts are barely covered, resembling Miley Cyrus (in her ‘grown up’ from Hananah Montana stage leotard). 

Beach Volleyball at the Rio Olympics had one of the biggest followings and  a large part of those numbers were because of the costumes or lack thereof. 

Realistically there are very few sports that require significantly different kit. It is not the athletes but the attitudes of the those governing sport that need to change.

Last week Colin Bell resigned as manager of the Irish women’s football team. In an interview he explained how he had wanted to remain and had given his blueprint for the future development and success of the ladies game. This was rejected by the FAI Board.

“I was told, basically, that things would carry on as they were to start off with, and then we’d see what happened, but that wasn’t good enough for me.

“I want progression at every level, and I think I would have been able to really, really grow the game. It will grow, I’m sure, because we’ve got a great set of girls, but the progress in and around the women’s game is just going too slow, as far as I’m concerned.”

There has been animated reaction to this with some pointing to the womens game being ‘fifth class citizens’ and ‘the dirt on the FAI’s shoe’ (Stuart Gilhooly, PFAI solicitor).

FAI AGM & Festival of Football Launch, Trim Castle/Knightsbrook Hotel, Co. Meath 7/5/2019 Women’s National Team manager Colin Bell Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Laszlo Geczo

While others have shrugged it off as another example of the total disregard and contempt the FAI Board hold for its members. I see it as a little from column A and little from column B.

For me, it is another example of the lack of vision in those governing high performance sport in Ireland. Indeed Irish sport is littered with stories of coaches and visionaries being forced out by the complete lack of appreciation for ’outside the box’ concepts.

Hockey Ireland have seen two outstanding coaches (Craig Fulton and Graeme Shaw) walk away in the last 12 months.

Both coaches had frustrating times in charge fighting for budgets rather than having High Performance direction on how to compete against fully professional opponents.

Both coaches broke their teams into the top 10 in the world where their competitors were fully professional. Both coaches now preside over teams where those governing have fully professional attitudes too.

Billy Walsh the most successful Olympic coach in Irish history walked away because like Bell, Fulton and Shaw his frustrations with dealing with short termism in an environment where by and large your top class competitors are all but professional became too much to take.

The board of the IABA were underwhelming in their regard for Walsh after he left and yet he moved to America where he was voted coach of the year in 2016.

Rio 2016 Olympic Games Day 5, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil 10/8/2016 Men’s Light Flyweight 49kg Round of 16 USA boxing coach Billy Walsh Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Morgan Treacy

This comes down to a fundamental discussion about the vision of governance of sport in Ireland. 

One of the key differences I have encountered between working with Canadian, British and  Irish teams is the willingness to say ‘we are better than they are’. It is in Irish culture to talk down our talent.

This permeates all the way to the top of Irish sport where we celebrate success with almost wide eyed surprise. The challenge of investing in the pursuit of excellence is a massive one for Irish sport.

Megan Rapinoe (whether you agree with her stance or not) has shown us what excellence can look like on and off the pitch.

How many voices (regardless of gender) do we have like that in Ireland? It would be churlish to say that quotas increasing numbers of women in sport governance  is the panacea to all ills but there are increasing examples of women in senior positions in sport driving success.

Jane Allen , CEO of one of my former employers British Gymnastics lead BG to their best ever Olympics in Rio. Helen Brownlee, Vice president of the Australian Olympic Committee is responsible for changing culture and direction in Aussie sport.

Tracey Kennedy head of Cork GAA, is the only female county chair working with the men’s games, and only the second ever following Roisin Jordan in Tyrone.

GAA Annual Congress, Croke Park, Dublin 24/2/2018 Chairperson of the Cork County Board, Tracey Kennedy speaks to congress Mandatory Credit ©INPHO/Oisin Keniry

Dr Jen Welter is the first female coach with an American Football professional franchise the Arizona Cardinals. Katie Sowers of the San Francisco 49ers is the first openly gay coach in the NFL.

All of these women are outliers and are the reason that Sport Ireland last year launched their 20×20 campaign.

Designed to have female participation in all areas of sport raised to at least 20% by 2020. This includes governance and media roles.

It has been noticeable that RTÉ’s sports coverage has a greater female presence currently.

This is hugely significant as a key factor in increasing female participation in sport is having visable role models. Promoting women in sport has to be about more than the players.

It is about creating visibility through marketing and sponsorship. It is about women presenting the trophies, coaching the teams, refereeing, developing strategy and signing the cheques to benefit athletes of both genders.

In 2015, according to their website, the Irish Sports Council awarded €2.96 million to the GAA in core funding, and more than €3.1 million to the FAI with an additional €192,274 in Women in Sport funding.

Meanwhile the Ladies Gaelic Football Association were awarded €384,655 and the Camogie association €378,519.

TV coverage of women’s sport in Ireland is less than 12 per cent and only three per cent of print and four per cent of online coverage is dedicated to women’s sport, a Nielsen report for 20 x 20 shows.

Evanne Ní Chuilinn, Jessica Harrington (Horse Trainer), Sarah Keane (President Olympic Federation of Ireland), Casey Stoney (Manchester United Women’s coach), Rena Buckley (18 times All Ireland winner), Graham Shaw (Former Ireland Women’s Hockey coach) and Ger Gilroy are pictured at the launch of 20×20, Mandatory Credit @INPHO/Morgan Treacy

Perhaps the real gender gap is in the coverage and marketing of sport. Melinda Gates (from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) on Twitter described the success of the USWNT as “inspiring a generation of young girls to fight for what they deserve and to continue to dream big. 

The legacy of the Women’s World Cup may well be that we cease to think about sport from the confines of gender.

Megan Rapinoe may not be everyone’s cup of tea but who wouldn’t want their kids to follow a sport star who stands up for those who don’t have a voice.

Let’s see how successful Sport Irelands 20×20 mission is in creating the next generation of Irish role models.

This is hugely significant as a key factor in increasing female participation in sport is having visible role models.

Promoting women in sport has to be about more than the players. It is about creating visibility through marketing and sponsorship.

It is about women presenting the trophies, coaching the teams, refereeing, developing strategy and signing the cheques to benefit athletes of both genders.

“If she can’t see, it she can’t be it”

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Niall O'Carroll