Let’s drop the cheesy our girls’ rhetoric. The fact is that women’s sport will simply never be as good as men’s and in an era where we want to watch the best, we won’t give them a second thought, writes Ewan MacKenna
There was a time when there were more great stories than successes. Far more, given there were no successes. While even Sweden and the Soviet Union had been at previous World Cups, it wasn’t until the third edition in 1998 that the Irish women’s rugby side shacked up at the tournament. They paid their own way to Amsterdam, slept rough on floors in order to cut costs, stuck around for a couple of beatings by Kazakhstan and wore jerseys that draped from their bodies like curtains because shops only sold men’s sizes. When current coach Philip Doyle got involved in 2003, they hadn’t scored a try in two-and-a-half years. Indeed, before the IRFU came on board in 2008, their budget amounted to €8,000 while England’s had six zeroes tagged on the end due to its lottery funding.
It puts Ireland’s efforts at this World Cup – despite a semi-final thrashing – into a shimmering light. But we’ll stop there as this column isn’t going the way of so much false fawning. Besides, there’ll be plenty of others to briefly dip in with a box-ticking ‘well done’ and a hard-heartednesses that pretends and patronises. The truth is, other than a few people for a few moments, few really care about the women’s rugby team or about most women across most sports. We glance briefly at historic wins because of some national pride and because we’re told it’s the right thing to do, but we look away just as quickly because what we want are the highest standards. And while this may be the elite of women’s sport, it’s light years from how actual elite sport feels, looks, sounds and impresses.
Ask yourself a few questions before you get offended here. Did you plan your day around the rugby team’s victory over New Zealand, or just flick over soon after you heard they had a chance of victory? For the semi-final loss to England, were you merely engaged because of who you are as an Irish person, rather than entertained because of what they are as rugby players of a certain calibre? Can you even name a handful of the starters? And will you go to their next game when it’s not hyped up as an event? Let’s not kid ourselves, for almost all, the answer is no to all because we can have better so easily. In fact even in women’s sports seen as more mainstream, can you tell us the current women’s Grand Slam champions in tennis or the 100m world record holder? Go on, so.
In the modern sports world where we’ve access to everything, we can pick and choose for our pleasure rather than their recognition. There was a time not long ago when it used to be about the local amidst a lack of choice but saturation has meant it’s now about enjoyment, which is created by the most talented. It’s why we watch the Premier League and not the League of Ireland because satisfaction counts far more than your supposed duty to the nearby. But that factor affects women’s sport more than anything because historical reasons mean they are playing catch-up and physical reasons mean they can never catch up to the best.
Plain and simple, women are relatively slower, lower, weaker. Throw in incentives and expertise created and demanded by the big business and mass markets of men’s sport, and it means the gap will grow and grow and we’ll watch women less and less. It may not seem right, and it’s sure not fair, but that doesn’t stop it from being true. The effort from top-level women in sport might be just as much, the wins might be just as personally rewarding, and when like beats like, the achievements might be just as impressive. It’s just that it’s not as good, and already we want to view brilliant.
It’s not sexist to say all that. What is sexist, though, is to lie to people about what they’ve done, and about what their triumphs and disasters mean to the majority, based purely on their gender. One newspaper, during the week, when writing about the Ireland-England semi-final, talked of a sell-out not long before we witnessed a half-empty stadium. Since then, others have talked about this women’s rugby team being heroes, but you watch the rise and fall of heroes over long periods, not dip in for a brief look before wandering off again without giving it another thought.
Take Katie Taylor as the perfect example in all of this. There’s no denying her talent and dedication but, unlike in men’s sport, we never ask hard questions. When have you ever heard someone raise the issue of the quality of those she competes with? The answer is never, because no one can even name a fighter she boxes against, it would go against the cheap and cheesy ‘our girl’ rhetoric we spout, and unless we’re told there’s a medal on the line we don’t take notice.
Just as we don’t have to go to the local am-dram anymore because we can press a button on the sofa and have a better script and more convincing actors, the same applies to women’s sport no matter how much trick ourselves so we feel we’re about equality when dealing with levels of performance that aren’t equal. The reality is – be it the rugby side for all the strides they’ve made or other female athletes – to almost all there’ll only be a passing interest when they achieve something of note. With once-in-a-generation victories it’ll be a blinking fad, but never fanaticism. That’s why we choose Colm Cooper over Cora Staunton, Robbie Keane over Emma Byrne, Paul O’Connell over Niamh Briggs. Because they’re better. And because in this age we can conveniently.
But enough of that as the Premier League, Heineken Cup and All Ireland hurling final are on the way. So move along, there’s something far better to see there.
17 August, 2014
Abriged version in Sunday Business Post