News Column

Olympic Women Take Lead Role

Aug. 6, 2012

Christine Brennan, USA TODAY

Gabby Douglas
Gabby Douglas

More than one week into the Summer Olympics, the headlines of the Games have had a certain "girl power" ring to them:

American women win gold in gymnastics with one of the most flawless performances under pressure in Olympic history. The British women answer at the rowing venue at Eton Dorney. A Saudi Arabian woman competes in the Olympics for the first time. Gymnast Gabby Douglas becomes the breakout U.S. star of the Games with the individual all-around title. Jessica Ennis draws the roar of a nation in winning the heptathlon at Olympic Stadium.

Something historic and even a little strange is happening in the 2012 London Games. A nation that has been known for wielding a strong male chauvinistic sports streak has fallen in love with its female athletes. And it's not just the Brits. American female athletes, outnumbering their male counterparts for the first time in an Olympics, are having their finest Games so far, outpacing the men in gold medals 18-10. Overall, they've won 53% of all U.S. medals, up considerably from 31% in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul.

Worldwide, more women than ever have gathered to compete in an Olympic Games: 44.4% of the athletes here are women, up from 26% in Seoul. Thirty-four nations, including the USA, sent teams with more female athletes than male. With a historic presence, their performances have been superb so far, with good reason.

"This is our World Series, our Super Bowl, our World Cup," said Dominique Dawes, an Olympic gold medal-winning gymnast and past president of the Women's Sports Foundation. "There are very few pro opportunities for female athletes. Only a handful can go on to professional sports careers, so for the gymnasts, for the volleyball players, for many of the other sports, this is it. This is our opportunity to shine, and we're taking advantage of that opportunity."

"The Olympics are really the great equalizer in sport," said International Olympic Committee member Angela Ruggiero, a U.S. hockey Olympic gold medalist. "If you're successful, they don't care about your gender, they care about whether you won gold, silver or bronze for your country. No one is talking negatively about gender here, they are talking about success. For women in professional sports, other than tennis, and maybe golf, that doesn't happen."

Ruggiero couldn't help but notice that her ticket to watch men's basketball included the often-ignored adjective men's. "I would have to argue there is more respect for women at the Olympics than anywhere else," she said. "Usually in sports, you hear it called women's basketball and then just basketball, meaning the men's. Here, your ticket says men's basketball."

Sebastian Coe, chairman of the 2012 London Games, has been pleased with the performance of women athletes. One day recently, he picked up his morning newspapers and, he said by telephone, "All the front-page leads were women."

A 40th anniversary gift

These were destined to be the Women's Olympics from the get-go. It's the 40th anniversary of Title IX, the law that opened the playing fields of the USA to girls and women, and even though no other nation has such a groundbreaking law, many have wanted to keep up with the Americans on the world stage nonetheless.

The confluence of positive events for women included the historic decisions of Saudi Arabia, Brunei and Qatar, the final three male-only holdouts in the Olympic world, to each bring at least one female athlete to these Games. The USA had made history with its majority of women, led by a female chef de mission, former basketball star Teresa Edwards, and brought into the opening ceremony by a female flag bearer, fencer and two-time Olympic gold medalist Mariel Zagunis.

But it was a Saudi judo competitor, Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani, who was the subject of much attention in the Games' first week, even though she competed for 82 seconds before being thrown by her Puerto Rican opponent.

"Hopefully this will be the start of bigger participation for other sports also," she said after the match. "Hopefully this is the beginning of a new era."

IOC President Jacques Rogge took the extraordinary step of trumpeting the presence of women on each of the 205 national teams at the opening ceremony.

His record on the advancement of women is mixed; on his watch, the IOC eliminated softball, a women-only sport, but he is to be given credit for brow-beating the reluctant Saudis into finally bringing women to the Games.

"This emerging generation of women athletes here in London is 'standing on the shoulders of giants' -- benefiting from the pioneering work of those who have come before them," Rogge wrote in an e-mail.

"Unlike their predecessors, the present group of young women have grown up with female athletes as role models and part of the 'sporting scenery.' After these Games, for the first time, we will have had women competing from all teams and in all sports. For a young girl watching at home, thinking of becoming an athlete, it has never been a more natural choice to compete," he wrote.

British discover women's soccer

The image of a little girl watching these Games at home is never far from the minds of the women competing here.

Take the unprecedented focus on the Great Britain women's soccer team, which was riding high until it lost to Canada in the quarterfinals. While millions here live and die with men's soccer, the women's game was banned for 50 years, until 1971, and has basically been ignored since. A few years ago, when a cabbie was asked about England's women's soccer team, he replied, "We have a women's team?"

Guaranteed, he knows there is a team now. Soccer started on the Wednesday before the Games began, the British women won, and there were those front pages again -- women's soccer as the lead story across the land.

"By simply seeing someone who looks like you, if you're a 12-year-old girl, you're in Britain, you see your women's soccer team win, I guarantee you the numbers will spike next year," Ruggiero said. "If there are fathers out there who didn't know Great Britain played women's soccer, or didn't respect it, if they went to a game or saw it on TV, they would see the level of play is different than the bias they carried into it."

American women's swimming has been a respected power for generations, but rarely has there been a team as strong as the one that competed here for eight days. The U.S. women won eight gold medals, the most they have won in the Olympics in 28years, when the Americans won 12 in the 1984 Los Angeles Games that were boycotted by the East Germans and the Soviet Union, according to research conducted by Bill Mallon, founder and past president of the International Society of Olympic Historians.

For the first time, the U.S. women's team was coached by a woman, University of California head coach Teri McKeever.

"I'm not standing here as the head coach of this team if Title IX doesn't happen," said McKeever, who was born 10 years before President Richard Nixon signed the law June 23, 1972.

Her team believes it wouldn't have done as well here if she hadn't been their head coach.

"This is definitely the most bonded team I've ever been a part of," Olympic gold medalist Dana Vollmer said. "I think having Teri McKeever as our head coach, she created a space for all of us that we could actually open up to one another and really learn each other's stories and learn what motivates each other and what makes each other nervous.

"To be able to be truly honest with all of your teammates is really an awesome feeling. We've really tapped into each other's energies and excitement and we're bringing that into every race."

'A watershed Olympics on a lot of levels'

When the Games close, the challenge will be to not lose the momentum that was built here.

"Hopefully there is a spillover after the Olympics," Ruggiero said. "That's my hope. Otherwise, you have all that success, then, when the Games end, it tends to go away."

But many believe too much history has already been made to see it evaporate this time.

"I think it's a watershed Olympics on a lot of levels," said former Olympic gold medalist Donna de Varona, who has worked on the issues of the advancement of women in international sport for decades.

"They really get sports here, and to see women athletes embraced like this, it's a new day. I hope someday, people are talking about what happened at the London Olympics as a turning point in the acceptance of women in sports throughout the world," she said.

If that happens, Coe said it would be "a wonderful legacy" for these Games.

"In historical terms, the London Games in 1948 with the appearance of Fanny Blankers-Koen (the winner of four gold medals who was known as 'The Flying Housewife') helped start to move the post-War agenda for the enablement of women," Coe said.

"History doesn't always repeat itself, but it occasionally aligns. I'd like to think that London has once again moved the cause of women in sports a little bit further," Coe said.

Source: Copyright USA TODAY 2012

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