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Sonia O’Sullivan: Sportswoman of 2023? Take your pick, it’s not an easy task

The overall sports award needs to be for the sportswoman that in some way transcends their sport.

It’s that time of the year again. Some 12 sports and 15 women will be recognised at The Irish Times Sport Ireland Sportswoman of the Year Awards in The Shelbourne Hotel in Dublin on Friday.

This is the annual event thatbrings together the cream of Irish women’s sport. Together they get to appreciate a great celebration of Irish sportswomen who continue to raise the bar and lead the way for future generations.

Each year, you appreciate even more what these awards have done for women’s sport in Ireland. And how far women’s sport has grown and succeeded at the highest level since the awards were first introduced in 2004.

Back then, they were groundbreaking when introduced to specifically celebrate the abilities and achievements of Irish women in sport. It gave people the opportunity to get to know standout sportswomen each month that may otherwise have gone unnoticed.


This ensured that women across a myriad of sports became household names, and could provide inspiration for young girls across the country. It also helped to build a growing supportive fan base that travel the world to support these great athletes, many still in this modern age pioneers in their chosen sport.

For a long time, it felt like the choice of sports available to young girls in this country was limited to cross country, athletics, swimming and local Gaelic football and camogie. Most other sports didn’t get the attention that they do today, where young girls can look up to their heroes competing at the highest level.

Back in 2004, there were just 14 women on the Irish Olympic team of 46, just eight years later at the London Olympics that number had more than doubled to 30 on a team of 66. In the most recent Tokyo Olympics, there were 55 Irish women on a team of 116.

These year-end award ceremonies always bring about some debate and comparison: who is the greatest and who takes the overall award? And no matter who you talk to, you will rarely get the same answer.

Like apples and oranges, there are many similarities but also vast differences that can make cross-sport comparison almost impossible to measure objectively.

Even more difficult to compare is individual and team sports and how an individual can stand out on a team, but could not be the star she is without the team behind her. This is always acknowledged.

Then there are the more visible sports. Some will always garner more attention than others, but the equal celebration of each woman’s sporting success each month is what is special about these monthly awards as they are not easily won.

The unique aspect that any winning sportswoman can only win one month each year allows room for more women and more sports to be celebrated. In some months there have been shared awards when it is almost impossible to pick one winner over another exceptional achievement.

These coveted awards have grown in stature and the last Friday before Christmas is one of the greatest celebrations of women’s sport in Ireland.

Many will have their most memorable moment, and some will be more popular and well-known than others. But when you get all these women in the room it’s also about celebrating the different achievements that bring them together.

It leaves just one more competitive moment for the judges to choose an overall winner, relive the sporting moments and try to compare one sport with another.

This begs the question; is the overall award decided on the greatest sporting achievement, the popularity of the sport, or the connection the athlete has made with the public through their achievement? Or maybe a combination of all three?

There is no doubt the respect that each athlete has for each other when they come together, and nobody will go home disappointed as each will pick up their monthly awards and share some of their memories with the room.

What could be interesting would be to ask each monthly award winner who they think should be the overall winner. They could possibly all have a vote on arrival, allowing them a chance to influence the final result.

I think this would give more credibility to the overall award. It would also give each monthly winner a reason to learn more about their fellow athletes and look beyond the results.

Many awards ceremonies take on a similar format each year. Then there are new awards coming along, but the originals always retain their integrity and value.

Next year will be the 20th anniversary of The Irish Times Sport Ireland Sportswoman of the Year Awards. The evolution of Irish women in sport has been transformational in this time and many of the earlier pioneers of Irish sport have been celebrated and acknowledged along the way.

The monthly awards are for sporting achievement, but the overall sports award needs to be for the sportswoman that in some way transcends their sport. Because like apples and oranges, it’s hard to compare the achievements of someone finishing fourth in the world in a footrace with a team player at the World Cup. Or a World Cup medal winner in the pool and the undisputed world boxing champion at two weights. Just to mention a few.

I think the likely winner is probably deserved for the transformation of the particular sporting year, so that the overall award is about more than pure sporting achievement. Even though there are times when this will be enough to win.

Take your pick, it’s not an easy task.