Women of Mettle

The U.S. women stole the show from the men in Albertville
March 02, 1992

let us now praise famous women:

Bonnie Blair, speed skating, two gold medals.

Cathy Turner, short-track speed skating, gold medal, silver medal.

Kristi Yamaguchi, figure skating, gold medal.

Donna Weinbrecht, moguls, gold.

Diann Roffe, giant slalom, silver.

Hilary Lindh, downhill, silver.

Nancy Kerrigan, figure skating, bronze.

In all, of the 11 medals won by U.S. athletes at Albertville—the best American showing in the Winter Games since 1980—women took home nine, including all five of the golds. Half of the 20 other top-10 finishes by U.S. athletes belonged to women. Figure skater Tonya Harding placed fourth. Skier Julie Parisien was fourth in the slalom, fifth in the giant slalom, and her teammate Eva Twardokens was seventh in the giant slalom and eighth in the Super G. In the luge, Cammy Myler finished fifth, Erica Terwilleger ninth.

American women finished higher than American men in every sport in which both fielded teams, except cross-country and biathlon, in which the two sexes were equally inept, neither one cracking the top 10. In every other discipline, on snow and on ice, in traditional sports and in first-time Olympic sports, the dynamic and surprising U.S. women outdid their brethren. Composing just 34% of the U.S. team—55 of 161 athletes—the ladies wearing stars and stripes took home 82% of the medals.

This imbalance is a new phenomenon. Taken as a whole, in the previous two Winter Olympics, the American medals have been split—eight for men, eight for women. So why, in 1992, is there suddenly a gulf? What has enabled American women to succeed in Winter Olympic sports at a rate U.S. men can't match?

Practical reasons include increased funding from the United States Olympic Committee's treasure chest and relaxed rules on amateurism. As a result, successful athletes like the 27-year-old Blair can keep training from one Olympics to the next without sacrificing their financial well-being. Also, there are more Olympic sports for women than in the past, ergo more medals for them to vie for. In 1960, for instance, there were only 11 medal events for women, compared to 25 events in 1992.

But there are also more medal events for men—34, compared to 17 in '60. And with more medals available, American males come home with a total of two? No golds? The worst medal showing by U.S. men since 1972? Versus the best showing ever by U.S. women? What gives?

Theories abound. Paul Wylie, whose silver in figure skating was one of those two medals won by U.S. men—the other was a bronze by mogul skier Nelson Carmichael—believes that women Olympians have a stronger mental commitment. "Our men don't have the killer instinct the women do," Wylie says. "Many of the men have an ambivalence about whether they should still be competing or starting to scale the corporate ladder. The women athletes don't have that ambivalence. They see athletics as one of the few places they have a chance to be Number One, where they are judged purely on merit, and their sex matters not in the least."

Roffe agrees that mental commitment is the key and cites other reasons why U.S. women have more of it than the men do. "Skiing is 50 percent mental strength," she says. "If you are not strong in the head, you have no chance. The U.S. women have much more depth than the men. When you have three, four, five skiers who can do well in a World Cup race, and you all train together, that breeds better results for the whole team, and that's why we have more confidence and are stronger in the head than the men."

Among the more heralded U.S. athletes in the '92 Games, the women proved far more capable of handling Olympic pressures than did the men. In speed skating, sprinters Blair and Dan Jansen were heavy medal favorites. Blair won her two golds in high style; Jansen's best finish was a disappointing fourth. In luge, both Duncan Kennedy and Myler finished the World Cup season in second place and were expected to contend for medals. But Kennedy slid badly at Albertville, finishing 10th; Myler placed fifth, the best result ever for a U.S. luger in an Olympics. "One thing is, there aren't a lot of media stories about the U.S. women, and therefore there's probably less pressure on them," says Kathryn Reith, communications director of the Women's Sports Foundation. "This might help them do better under the gun."

Some people credit Title IX, the legislation enacted in 1972 that has helped combat gender discrimination in college athletics, for the U.S. women's success. And there is no doubt that Title IX has changed the way Americans view women's athletics. Twenty years ago, there was a stigma attached to being a serious woman athlete. Sports were seen by many as unfeminine. Today, surveys suggest that a great majority of parents believe that sports are equally as important for girls as for boys. Twenty-five years ago, only 11% of college athletes were women. Today, one third of them are.

"Post Title IX, more schools at all levels, not just colleges, recognized the need for equality," says Dick Jaeger, athletic director at Dartmouth, which has provided at least one member of every U.S. team since the Winter Games began in 1924. "Women have finally gotten their break, and they're taking advantage of it."

The theory is that when Title IX became law, interest in women's athletics percolated down from the top. As colleges, fearful of losing federal funds, fielded women's teams in traditional sports like basketball, softball and soccer, high schools also began fielding more teams for girls. By 1978, just six years after Title IX was passed, the number of girls competing in high school had increased from 294,000 to more than 1.6 million. Grade schools, too, began following suit.

The result has been that for the first time an entire generation of American women has been exposed to and encouraged to pursue competitive sports from the time they were children. Some of those women gravitated to the Games of Winter. "You don't necessarily have a grass-roots movement in luge," says Harvey Schiller, executive director of the USOC. "But you do have a grass-roots interest in women's athletics. I think that's the biggest thing we're seeing at these Olympics."

Given that success breeds success, this probably means that the medal surge by the U.S. women is not a onetime thing. Millions of little girls in the U.S., already actively involved in sports, have a whole new set of athletic heroes to emulate. In two years, at the Lillehammer Games in Norway, they will be able to see most of them compete again. Figure skaters Yamaguchi and Kerrigan will probably be back. Speed skater Blair is likely to return to try for her third consecutive gold in the 500 meters. Weinbrecht should be back on the bumps, Myler on the luge run and Lindh, Parisien and Roffe on the slopes. "It's been a big Olympics for the women," says Roffe. "And over the next two years, we will even look better."

PHOTOJOHN BIEVERBlair, who had it made in the shade in the 500 and the 1,000, may go for gold again in '94. ILLUSTRATION PHOTOCARL YARBROUGH (LINDH, WEINBRECHT)Medalists all: a grin from Lindh (top left), a bouquet for Weinbrecht, a hug for Kerrigan (in white) from Yamaguchi. TWO PHOTOSRICHARD MACKSON (YAMAGUCHI AND KERRIGAN)[See caption above.]

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)