The biggest stories of 2021 belonged to sportswomen


One would almost want Paul O’Donovan. He is arguably the greatest Irish rower of all time. At the top of all discussions about the greatest Irish Olympian of all time. One of three Irish sportsmen maybe on the planet who makes everyone’s cheeks swell in his sport and whistles softly. And yet, it’s almost an afterthought when it comes to assessing 2021, the sporting year.

It’s unfair, it’s true. He deserves better, just like his consigliere Fintan McCarthy. They are two of nine Irish people in history to win Olympic gold. It was a timeless thing they did, something that will outlast them, us and everyone else. In any other year, they’d be the December circuit toast, all those costumes and boots and champagne flutes. High kings pronounced of everything. The last tied bow of the Irish Year of Sport.

But 2021 is different. On this occasion, the biggest stories of the year belong to Irish sportswomen. Olympic gold is still the most powerful currency in the market, but in an era of widespread inflation, it doesn’t buy the usual spotlight supply.

So this is not to diminish what the Skibbereen pair achieved in Tokyo. Far from it, in fact. They are only eclipsed this year because something really exceptional has happened. And continued to happen. And continues to happen.

Unprecedented is one of those words that is bloated and stuffed beyond its remit. We shouldn’t be so quick to deploy it. It should be kept like a good wine, only taking it out when the occasion requires it. Something is only unprecedented if it has not happened before.

So with that in mind, here’s a list of things that hadn’t happened until 2021. There had never been a female Grand National winner. There had never been a leading rider in Cheltenham. There had never been an Irish golfer in the Solheim Cup. There had never been a European rookie who went five games unbeaten in the Solheim Cup. There had never been an Irish golfer who shot a 61 in a major.

Minella Times ridden by Rachael Blackmore wins the Grand National Handicap Chase at Aintree.  <a class=Photograph: Tim Goode / Getty Images / Pool” height=”349″ src=”https://www.irishtimes.com/polopoly_fs/1.4743159!/image/image.jpg_gen/derivatives/landscape_620/image.jpg” width=”620″/>

Minella Times ridden by Rachael Blackmore wins the Grand National Handicap Chase at Aintree. Photograph: Tim Goode / Getty Images / Pool

Leona Maguire celebrates with the Solheim Cup after winning Europe’s victory over the United States in Toledo, Ohio. Photograph: Maddie Meyer / Getty Images

Following. No Irish woman has ever won a team medal in any sport at the Olympics. No Irish athlete has ever won Paralympic medals in track cycling and road cycling at the same games. No Irish sprinter has ever achieved the 100m / 200m double at a European Under-20 Championship. There had never been a Paralympic Games where two Irish swimmers returned with medals.

Much more. No woman had ever been TMO in a Six Nations men’s game. No woman had ever refereed a senior men’s national final in the GAA. No 16-year-old – male or female – had scored a century in international cricket before they could blow out the candles on their birthday cake. No Irish team had qualified for two consecutive World Cups of Hockey. No Irish woman has ever been paid as much to play football for her country as her male counterparts.

Again and again. There had never been an Irish women’s football team that had won an away World Cup qualifying match against a better-ranked team. There had never been an Irish woman in a European all-around gymnastics final. There had never been an Irish woman in a multiple gymnastics world final. There had never been an Irish woman in the Olympic diving semi-final.

And that’s just the stuff that had never been done before. Nowhere in this list is there any mention of Kellie Harrington or Katie Taylor or Meath’s footballers. The 40 Ballymacarbry County titles in a row are not there. Neither does the Galway camogie team. Neither Shelbourne’s ridiculous heroism on the final day, nor Orla O’Dwyer’s AFLW title, nor Mona McSharry’s Olympic final.

Meath's Vikki Wall celebrates with her teammates after ending Dublin's domination of the women's football championship.  Photograph: Bryan Keane / Inpho

Meath’s Vikki Wall celebrates with her teammates after ending Dublin’s domination of the women’s football championship. Photograph: Bryan Keane / Inpho

So look, there’s a lot to unbox out there. An avalanche of first ever and best ever and everything in between. It would be easy to be suffocated by all of this, to let its onslaught take your breath away. But when you step back and look for the why, three distinct things emerge.

First and foremost, and most evidently, this is a generation of extremely talented and motivated Irish sportswomen. In a sense, this is nothing new. Every now and then throughout our sporting history we get a Maeve Kyle or a Rosemary Smith or a Sonia O’Sullivan or a Derval O’Rourke. They come out on their own, carried away by their own talent and brilliant bloody minds. Usually we haven’t done much to produce them. They are essentially their own creations.

What is different this time is the fact that there is such an overabundance. All right here now. The days of waiting six months for Sonia’s next race are long gone. Any day, any week, through every month of the year, Irish women perform at the peak of their favorite sport. Blackmore and Taylor, Maguire and Harrington, Ellen Keane and Vikki Wall, Katie-George Dunlevy and Eve McCrystal, Katie McCabe and Denise O’Sullivan and Beibhinn Parsons.

There is a cumulative effect to their presence at the same time. On any given Saturday you can watch TV watching McCabe being the assist leader for England’s best team at Blackmore winning the big race from Haydock to Maguire challenging for the final LPGA title.

You don’t have to go hunting them down or chasing a glitch stream to see them. They are an integral part of the sports landscape. You take it for granted that they are there. You expect them to go and be some of the best in the show. In itself, this is a giant leap.

Second, the wheel keeps turning. At the Olympics, the two most heartbreaking interviews with Irish athletes were Natalya Coyle and Annalize Murphy. Both in their thirties, both trailblazers, both beyond heartbroken in their last Olympics which collapsed on them. Yet in their devastation, both were keen to speak enthusiastically of those who came behind them. When Sive Brassil (modern pentathlon) and Eve McMahon and Aoife Hopkins (sailing) become Olympians, they will follow very clear paths.

The third thing – and perhaps the most important thing – that is obvious is how great the sport of young women is. We forget that all the time. In football, the Men’s World Cup is 61 years older than the women’s. Men’s boxing has been an Olympic sport for 108 years longer than women’s boxing. Modern pentathlon is not that modern – men competed in the Olympics as early as 1912 while women were not allowed to try it until Sydney in 2000.

There were 28 Ryder Cups leading up to the Solheim Cup. The first All-Ireland women’s football took place in 1974, just 87 years after the men’s first competition. The very first women’s horse race in the UK was held in 1972, just 192 years after the first Epsom Derby. We could go on.

The point is, we are at the foot of the mountain. We assume 2021 has been an exceptional year, but only because history and slowness of thought has conditioned us in this way. Who are we to imagine that 2022 can’t be as good or better? Or that the next decade will not eclipse what has happened in the past 12 months?

Katie Taylor during her victory over Natasha Jonas.  She fielded her biggest fight of all time against Amanda Serrano next year.  Photograph: Matchroom Boxing / Dave Thompson / Inpho

Katie Taylor during her victory over Natasha Jonas. She fielded her biggest fight of all time against Amanda Serrano next year. Photograph: Matchroom Boxing / Dave Thompson / Inpho

Katie McCabe and Denise O'Sullivan of the Republic of Ireland during the warm-up against Slovakia in November.  Photography: Laszlo Geczo / Inpho

Katie McCabe and Denise O’Sullivan of the Republic of Ireland during the warm-up against Slovakia in November. Photography: Laszlo Geczo / Inpho

We already know 2022 will bring us Taylor’s biggest fight, a multi-million dollar showdown with Amanda Serrano. And that the Irish football team’s assault on a very first World Cup qualifier is well underway. And this first LPGA title from Maguire is surely in the post. And that if Blackmore avoids injury, she should have another Cheltenham bumper. We know all of this and we also know that there is so much that we don’t know.

It has been the best year. Until the next one.

From.