Kevin Palmer: 'This summer opens up the prospect for women's sport to take centre stage'
“Of course women can share the sporting stage with men. I think I have proved that as much as anyone.”
Few are better qualified to deliver that statement than the great Katie Taylor and as she sat down for a chat with Independent.ie, the Olympic boxing champion who has went on to become an undisputed world champion in the professional ranks believes groundbreaking female athletes are in the midst of creating a revolution that will change the perception of sport for good.
Taylor has been the trailblazer for Ireland’s sportswomen over the last decade and more and she has now been joined by a new batch of role models, with the Irish women’s soccer team, our heroic hockey heroes who reached last summer’s World Cup final Ireland’s rugby and camogie players capturing headlines aplenty in recent years.
“Perception of women’s sport has definitely changed and that has shown in the amount of people who are watching the big events,” believes Taylor.
“My decision to try and make a move into professional boxing was a step into the unknown and when I first got in touch with Eddie Hearn and asked him whether he would be interested in promoting me, we both didn’t really know what we were getting in to.
“How would people take to women’s boxing? It was an experiment in many ways, but now it feels like we have proved this is a part of the sport people want to watch and we want more now.”
Taylor concedes she still feels intimidated when she attends press conferences alongside high profile male fighters such as boxing superstar Anthony Joshua, with female reporters few and far between in boxing.
“There are not a lot of women around when I do these press conferences,” says Taylor. “That isn’t a big problem for me as that has tended to be the case throughout my career and it has become the norm.
“I’ve done a lot of these press conferences now with hundreds of people there and all the cameras and I still don’t feel comfortable. That hasn’t got any better, but I know it is part of the job and it is something I have had to get used to.
“To reach a point where a female boxer can be at a big press conference like that shows how far we have come in our sport.
“Girls weren’t allowed to box when I started out and that meant I had to pretend to be a boy and we had to fight hard to get women’s boxing into the Olympics, but you can overcome these obstacles if you push yourself forward.”
If Taylor is the undisputed champion of women’s sport in Ireland, the army of contenders following inter footsteps and breaking down barriers are multiplying at a rapid rate, with the 20×20 campaign that was launched last month pushing a drive to promote women’s sport in Ireland.
Arsenal and Ireland footballer Louise Quinn was a key figure at the launch of a drive to promote awareness of women’s sport and she told us that Ireland have some catching up to do on their English counterparts.
“I feel like we can learn some lessons from the way England have embraced women’s sports in the last few years,” Louise told us. “You look at Barclays signing a £10m sponsorship deal for the English top division and MasterCard coming in with a sponsorship deal with Arsenal Women’s team and it shows that big companies are willing to embrace our sport now.
“It would be great to think campaigns like 20×20 will get things moving in the right direction in Ireland because we have seen what can happen if Irish girls have success in sport and how the nation gets behind them.
“Katie Taylor is universally loved in Ireland and look at what happened when our hockey girls got to the World Cup final last summer. Everyone was tuning in to watch and that includes people who probably never believed they would find themselves watching a women’s hockey match.”
The crusade of the Irish women’s soccer team to be treated with more respect by the FAI captured national headlines in 2017 and Quinn suggests moments like that help to change perceptions in women’s sport.
“People still talk about how great it was that we stood up to the powers that be and won and it was a big step forward in raising awareness of the women’s game in Ireland,” adds Quinn.
“The other big moment for raising awareness of women’s soccer in Ireland was Stephanie Roche’s goal that was nominated for the 2014 FIFA Puskas and we need more flashes of publicity like that. If we can qualify for a major tournament that would be a breakthrough moment for the women’s game in Ireland.”
A summer without an Olympic Games and a major tournament in men’s soccer opens up the prospect for women’s sport to take centre stage, with the female version of the World Cup set to kick off in France on Friday.
It is a competition that could take women’s football to the next level and if the #MeToo movement was a defining moment in the entertainment world, that spirit for change now appears to be spilling onto the sports fields.
The award-winning documentary ‘Katie’ is available to stream on Netflix now.
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