Derval O’Rourke believes the storytelling at the heart of Ireland’s Fittest Family has made it a TV ratings grabber – and is convinced her beloved athletics can learn from it.
The former world champion hurdler was sceptical about coming on board as a coach, initially turning down a role when the first series of the Davy Fitzgerald and James Sexton-produced programme was made.
But she liked what she saw and, having played a central role since, is a passionate advocate of a show that is now in its eight season.
“Sports like athletics can actually learn some stuff from it, which some people will think is blasphemy,” laughed O’Rourke.
“The very first year of Fittest Family, I got asked to do it and I said ‘no, that makes no sense’.
“And I watched it and I thought ‘that looks quite funny and a bit of craic’, so I did season two and I’ve done loads of seasons since.
“I think what makes it popular is something we can all embrace, it tells the stories really well of the people participating and also something that it does which is massive – and doesn’t get the credit for – is there’s lots of mums doing it and lots of young girls, teenage girls, doing it.
“That’s a really good thing because we don’t see enough girls in those situations, so I think it’s very relateable for a lot of families.
“It’s edited very well but the events are all done live, it goes and whatever happens, happens.
“I think it just hits different areas. Yeah, we’re on there and we’re coaching, but it’s about the families, you’re just trying to facilitate them a little bit.
“If you have a guy hanging off something, how can you coach that? All you can do is hope he stays relaxed.”
The two-time Olympian jokes that while rival coaches Fitzgerald and Donncha O’Callaghan are “useless” at pushing the programme on social media, Anna Geary and herself are always promoting the show.
O’Rourke, 39, added: “I get messages every single Sunday night from a lot of my friends and a lot of people online of their kids trying to do whatever is happening in Fittest Family.
“But I think Track and Field has the ability to resonate with people as well – and I’m always sad that it doesn’t have the following it should have because from a female perspective, it’s one of the few sports that gives people the opportunity that it does and it’s so far ahead of itself when we talk about equality in sport.
“Athletes have been doing this for years – I never felt throughout my career that I didn’t get opportunities because I was female.
“I’m very good friends with Donncha, I worked with him a bit when I worked in rugby afterwards (at Munster), and Davy is Davy – we talk to him now and again, but not as much, he’s not as active on our WhatsApp group!
“Mairead (Ronan), the presenter, is friends with all of us and pulls us together.
“But I do think the other thing it’s helpful for, a little bit of athletics is represented – it does show me hurdling or whatever at some point!
“It’s a good thing, and this year in particular it’s been very big.”
What Ireland’s Fittest Family does is make sport entertaining, and the Cork woman would love to see athletics embrace elements of that to become a more attractive product in this day and age.
“I would bring in elements of Fittest Family to track if I could, even stuff like where people are from because you get a lot of the community behind it then,” O’Rourke explained.
“It’s interesting for me, I’ve started doing commentary in athletics and did the comms and some presenting in Doha at the last World Championships.
“And one of the conversations I would have with that production team is they’re trying to find ways of making sport more consumable.
“I love performance, the actual basic of running the fastest from point A to B, whether there’s hurdles or not, even if it’s a distance race I’m obsessed with it. I find it fascinating.
“But actually we’re living in a world where we all consume things in such a quick way that you have to find a way of making that consumable to the modern consumer. So it is quite interesting, all of that stuff”.
Former Olympian Derval O’Rourke pictured at the official announcement of Allianz’ eight-year worldwide partnership with the Olympic and Paralympic Movements, building on a collaboration with the Paralympic movement since 2006. For more information go to www.allianz.com