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.
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