Northern Ireland news

Chris Donnelly: We must create the environment in which women's sport is fully appreciated

Ireland's Kellie Anne Harrington celebrates with their gold medal at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. Picture by Adam Davy/PA Wire

JUST over a century ago on St Stephen's Day in 1920, more than 50,000 spectators made the journey to Goodison Park in Liverpool to watch a football game.

What made this contest special was that the 22 players on the pitch were women in a game pitting Dick Kerr's Ladies team against St Helen's Ladies.

The Dick Kerr's Ladies team had become famous for playing fixtures across Britain and Ireland, fielding on more than 60 occasions in 1921 (including in Belfast) as the women's game began to establish itself.

Alas, the hope of a flourishing women's game was shattered when, in December 1921, the English FA banned its members from allowing women to play at their grounds, effectively killing the game in its infancy. In their statement explaining the decision, the football authorities proclaimed that football was “quite unsuitable for females and ought not to be encouraged.” Football Association members were also banned from serving as referees or linesmen at women's football games. The ban would not be lifted until 50 years later in 1971.

The women's game has significantly progressed since the early 1970s, with progress in England being particularly notable in recent years. Yet it remains the case that competitive women's sport is the poor relation in most countries not least when compared with how women's sport is pro-actively encouraged in one particular country, the USA.

In the Tokyo Olympics, the USA topped the medal table with 113 medals. Of those medals, 66 were won by women athletes, just under 60 per cent of all medals won by American athletes. This is the fourth successive Olympics in which US women won more medals than their men. In fact, the American women appeared on more podiums on their own than all but two other countries did in total in Tokyo.

The reason for American women's unparalleled sporting success is rooted in a law passed through the United States Congress just under 50 years ago. The Education Amendments of 1972 included a clause, Title IX, which explicitly forbade discrimination on the basis of sex.

This law was translated as meaning that public schools and universities were compelled to offer equal academic and athletic opportunities for men and women. It meant that, for every star American football or basketball boy a university wanted to lure with a scholarship offer, they had to equal this with a similar offer to a girl athlete. Its impact has been revolutionary.

The number of girls nationwide playing high school sports jumped from just 300,000 in 1974 to more than 3.1 million in 2012. Increased participation at high school level led to a massive increase in varsity level sporting competitions, along with a surge in scholarships for female students. All of which has ensured that, at both amateur and professional level, American women continue to have an advantage over their international counterparts on the global sporting stage for a generation (and counting) beyond the point at which other countries began to catch up with their male counterparts in many sporting disciplines.

For example, whilst rugby remains a minority sport in the US, that did not prevent the American women's team from winning the inaugural World Cup in 1991 and reaching the semi-finals of the tournament as recently as 2017. Similarly, the US women's soccer team has won the World Cup three times.

The level of organised sporting competition at college level in the USA is peerless and, quite simply, needs to be experienced to be properly understood. Live women's college basketball games will be broadcast regularly, with star players and coaches becoming household names alongside their male counterparts. Women's professional sporting leagues have been well established for many years.

In Ireland, we have been rightly celebrating the success of north Dublin's Kellie Harrington who followed in the footsteps of Katie Taylor eight years ago in bringing home the gold this summer, evidence that boxing continues to lead the way (in terms of Olympic sports) at elite sporting level in this country.

Mary Peters may have claimed gold in 1972 representing Great Britain, but the first woman to win an Olympic medal for Ireland was Michelle Smith in 1996 (we'll say no more on that topic). Starting with Sonia O'Sullivan's podium appearance in 2000, five of the sixteen Olympic medals won by Irish athletes this century to date have been secured by women. Progress, but much left to do.

Gaelic games have led the way in this country through promoting women in sports through camogie and ladies Gaelic football, which have been well established at club and county level for generations. Earlier this year, the Northern Ireland women's football team secured a place in the European Championships for the first time, whilst the Ireland's women hockey team were the first Irish sporting side at any discipline to reach a World Cup final in 2018.

Yet cultural change is still required. Every St Patrick's Day, the BBC broadcasts the schoolboy finals of our provincial Gaelic football and rugby tournaments. No thought is ever given to providing such a platform to schoolgirl sport. Actively promoting participation in sports must involve creating structures but also opportunities for role models to emerge and inspire. We have some distance to travel yet to create the environment in which women's sport is fully appreciated. We could do with our own Title IX moment.

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