Female athletes take Olympic leap forward

  • Article by: RACHEL BLOUNT , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 5, 2012 - 9:07 AM

The London Games might best be remembered for setting new standards for gender equity in sports.

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LONDON

As they entered the stadium during the Opening Ceremony of the London Olympics, Maziah Mahusin of Brunei and Bahya Mansour Al Hamad of Qatar gazed at the 80,000 spectators and smiled broadly. The first women from their countries to compete in the Olympic Games, they were chosen as their nations' flagbearers in the athletes' march, one of the highest honors in sport.

They also were carrying the flag for a larger cause: the full participation of women in the world's most prestigious sporting event. For the first time in the Olympics' 116-year history, every competing nation has at least one woman athlete. The United States team has more women than men on its roster, another milestone, and the Minnesota delegation includes 12 women and two men. The debut of women's boxing this week marks the first time that women have been allowed to compete in every Summer Olympics sport; the Winter Games will follow suit with the inclusion of women's ski jumping in 2014.

International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge received a loud ovation at the Opening Ceremony when he noted the progress of women in the Olympic movement, calling the 2012 Games "a major boost for gender equality.'' Under pressure from the IOC -- which has made the inclusion of women athletes a top priority -- the last all-male holdout among the 204 nations, Saudi Arabia, added a female judo athlete and a runner to its roster just two weeks before the Olympics.

"It's historic, it's unprecedented and it's tremendously important,'' said Mary Jo Kane, director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota.

Through Saturday, the 269 women on the U.S. team had won 28 medals, including 16 golds. The 261 men had won 26, with 10 gold. Kayla Harrison became the first American to win an Olympic gold medal in judo, and the three world records set by the U.S. swim team belonged to Missy Franklin, Rebecca Soni and Dana Vollmer.

The first Olympic events for women were held at the Paris Games of 1900. Of the 997 athletes, 22 were female, and they participated in tennis, golf, croquet, sailing and equestrian.

The percentage of women athletes has increased in each Olympiad since the 1964 Tokyo Games. That year, there were 678 women competing, 13.2 percent of the total number of athletes. In London, 10,490 athletes are expected to compete, including 4,688 women (44.7 percent).

The percentage of events that include women also has risen in each Olympics since the 1984 Games in Los Angeles. Women will compete in 46.4 percent of the 302 events in London, more than twice as many as in the Munich Games of 1972 -- the year the U.S. signed Title IX into law, mandating equal opportunities for women in educational programs that receive federal funds.

Title IX led to more teams, greater support and better facilities for women's sports. It gave rise, Kane said, to a culture of entitlement for women athletes. In contrast to decades past --when women had to fight for the right to compete -- they now expect to have the chance to become an Olympian.

Scott Blackmun, chief executive of the U.S. Olympic Committee, said Title IX has played a significant role in the success of American teams at the Olympics. It gave U.S. women more opportunities in sports before other nations did the same, laying a foundation that has yielded a trove of Olympic medals.

"It's all about timing,'' said fencer Mariel Zagunis, a two-time gold medalist who carried the U.S. flag in the opening ceremony. "For me, it wasn't a question of, 'Will I play sports?' It was, 'What sport will I play?' It wasn't, 'Will I go to the Olympics?' It was, 'How many Olympics will I go to?' To have the women outnumber the men, it's just amazing. Leaps and bounds.''

Despite the gains, women are not on completely equal footing in the Olympics. There were protests in Saudi Arabia after Sarah Attar and Wojdan Shaherkani were named to the team, and Shaherkani's participation was in doubt earlier this week because of concerns that her headscarf -- which her father insisted she wear -- could present a choking hazard. There also are few women in leadership positions with the IOC and other Olympic organizations.

Still, many athletes, officials and advocates of women's sports said the London Games will be remembered for setting new standards of gender equity, which could resonate beyond sports into the wider culture.

"In the U.S., it's a reflection of the fundamental shift that has taken place in the wake of Title IX," Kane said. For the first time in our history, there is a critical mass of females participating in sport, and they're not just showing up. They're winning.

"In countries where women are limited to very traditional gender roles, there are stereotypes of what women can and can't do. If you turn on the TV or open up the newspaper and see a woman from your country competing at the Olympics, it opens up the question of 'Why can't they drive a car?' or 'Why can't they be a doctor?' It's expanding opportunities and forever altering traditional notions of the capacities of women.''

The addition of boxing -- a sport still viewed by many as a male-only domain -- represents another breakthrough at the London Games.

Three weight classes will be contested. Even so, boxing's inclusion was not without controversy; the Amateur International Boxing Association, which governs the sport at the Olympic level, caused a stir when it suggested female boxers should wear skirts in the ring. After many boxers protested, it offered them the option of wearing shorts instead.

AIBA president Wu Ching-Kuo said competition in all three weight classes is sold out, and he already is working to include more classes in the 2016 Rio Olympics. "I think women in sport is one of the most important issues in the Olympic movement,'' he said. "It is not just manpower. Women also play a very important part.''

Kane said she has been gratified to see how women are being presented in the media at the London Games. Less attention is being paid to their shopping habits, wardrobe or makeup, she said, and more is being given to their athletic prowess.

Sports federations also have been working with countries to reach compromise on issues that may prevent the participation of women, such as the wearing of headscarves. Several Muslim women will compete at the Olympics wearing the hijab. In some cases, the headscarf has been modified to allow women to meet cultural standards while not interfering with safety or athletic performance.

Women are breaking other barriers, too. Nur Suryani Mohd Taibi, a shooter from Malaysia, was three months pregnant when she qualified for the Olympics. She competed last week, finishing 34th in women's 10-meter air rifle one month before she is due to give birth. "I wanted to show women they can do whatever they want,'' she said.

What they want to do over the next eight days in London is to continue winning medals -- and winning respect.

"It's a great thing,'' said Seimone Augustus of the Minnesota Lynx, a member of the U.S. Olympic women's basketball team. "We just finished celebrating Title IX in the WNBA, and it's wonderful to raise awareness that women are making strides. We're getting to the point where more people are starting to respect women athletes. It's exciting to see.''

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