Orla Chennaoui: The power of being authentic as a female sports journalist

Orla Chennaoui Game Changers episode

This week’s guest on The Game Changers podcast is Orla Chennaoui, a multilingual TV sports presenter who currently works for Eurosport

As a child growing up in Northern Ireland, Chennaoui aspired to compete at the Olympic Games. 

Despite becoming an all-Ireland triple jump champion, Chennaoui never made it to the international stage. She may not have realised her dream, but instead she embarked on a “more rewarding” career.

“I used to be a track and field athlete as a kid,” she said. “It was such a huge part of my life growing up. I think only now that I’m considerably older, I realise how formative it’s been in my character, my strength and my discipline.

“I dreamt for years of representing Ireland at the Olympic Games and it never happened, but it has led me into this beautiful career. That’s actually been considerably more rewarding, so I’m very grateful for that.”

After completing a degree in Law and French at Queen’s University Belfast, Chennaoui moved to Edinburgh to do a postgraduate degree in journalism. She then worked in print and broadcast journalism across the UK, before landing a job at Sky News

“I just saw the job advertised for Ireland correspondent at Sky News. I was just about to get married and we lived in Edinburgh, and the job meant moving to Belfast.

“So I applied for it thinking I wouldn’t get it in a million years, and I didn’t want to think about getting it because obviously that wouldn’t be the most conventional start to married life, leaving your husband within two months. But I did get it. And that is what I did!

“It was the opportunity to work at Sky News really. It was an honour and I knew it would be incredible grounding and the best that there is really.”

Chennaoui initially had ambitions to become a war correspondent, but she found the requirements of the job too difficult. 

“You can shut yourself off to the tragedy of humanity for a long time and you have to if you’re a news journalist,” she explained. “It just felt a little bit too much for me really and I wanted something that was a bit more uplifting.”

As a result, Chennaoui applied to be the Olympic correspondent at Sky News

“I thought, well, that’s right up my street. It’s got the sport, but it’s also got the politics and the finance. It was much more than just a sports job. 

“So I went for that and luckily got it. And then that was it. I started to do much more sport, alongside the politics and the finance.

“After the London 2012 Olympic Games, I just decided there’s no way I’m going back to news. I’m going to work in sport, some way or another, and that’s what I did. I just absolutely fell in love with everything to do with it really.”

Chennaoui joined Sky Sports shortly after the sexism scandal involving Richard Keys and Andy Gray. 

The pair were forced to leave the company after they were found to have made derogatory and sexist comments about female referee Sian Massey and other women in the industry.

Despite this, Chennaoui revealed she “never felt more supported” than she did at Sky Sports News

“It was a fantastic environment to work in for me, it was absolutely fantastic. I wouldn’t have a single bad word to say about Sky Sports and Sky Sports News. I felt they were fantastically supportive and continue to be.”

Chennaoui has faced some obstacles, however, particularly with the struggle to remain authentic while still being taken seriously. 

“It’s important to be genuine and to be authentic. When I started on Eurosport in particular, the home of cycling which has been in the past very traditional, wearing different clothes, funky hair and makeup was a big deal.

“I got an awful lot of negative attention and, and mainly people saying, ‘why are you bothering? Why are you doing that?’ Eurosport have always just been entirely supportive because they know I’m good at my job.

“But it matters to me because I am a woman in sport. I’ve always wanted to see a version of me in sport to know that I belong.

“I say how much I grew up with sport, but I grew up with it knowing it wasn’t really my domain. I was just carving a little place for myself in it, but I’d watch television coverage of football and it was always the men talking. 

“So, you feel like you are an invited guest in that rather than someone who necessarily belongs. I just want to be a representation of a different kind of sports fan. 

“I want to show women in particular that you can care about how you look and you can love sport, and you can get sweaty and grimy and dirty and still want to put on some lipstick.”

As part of her role with Eurosport, Chennaoui presents the channel’s cycling coverage. She discussed the rise of women’s cycling, with the first ever Tour de France Femmes on the horizon.

The 42-year-old explained how she had started to watch cycling with her daughter, and the disparity in the sport became even more clear when she had to explain it out loud.

“We sat down to watch a man’s race and my daughter said, ‘oh, is the woman’s race coming next then?’. And there was no woman’s race coming next. She couldn’t understand why there wasn’t. 

“When I tried to explain to my daughter why there is still inequality, it makes it real. 

“It makes the injustice of it so much more stark because we accept it. But when you tell a seven year old that the world’s not fair and women still don’t have the same opportunities as men, they literally cannot get their heads around it. And neither should we, frankly.”

Chennaoui ended the interview by discussing her future plans, with a book and a documentary both in the pipeline. 

“I think my ambitions really are those with meaning now. I wanted to achieve what I’ve achieved so far for me, and that’s wonderful, and you have to do it for you.

“But now I want to use the tiny platform that I have to reach out and to do things for other people and with other people.”

This article was produced in partnership with The Game Changers podcast, which is supported by Sport England. You can listen to the full episode with Orla Chennaoui here.

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