History has been lit large across the London fortnight—the likely last stands of Phelps and the Dream Team, the kinetic brilliance of Bolt—but the electricity of these Games has come from another growing, if not new, source: towering women
This is an article from the Aug. 13, 2012 issue
PIERRE DE Coubertin may have been the father of the modern Olympic movement, but he was no Title IX dad. The French nobleman once declared from under that fastidious little mustache of his that an Olympics with women would be, among other things, "uninteresting" and "unaesthetic." Oh, how the first 11 days of the London Olympics put the lie to both claims.
Consider the galvanizing beauty of the women's judo final, in which Kayla Harrison, sexually abused for nearly six years beginning at age 11 by a now-imprisoned male coach, felt safe enough to leap joyfully into the arms of a new sensei, who had helped her discover the self-confidence to win the first U.S. gold medal in the sport.
And consider the race that led to Britain's first gold of the Games, won by a coxless pair that included Heather Stanning, to whom the Royal Artillery granted a leave in 2010 so she could train. Now that she and Helen Glover have accomplished that mission, Captain Stanning is due back with her regiment, which will soon deploy to Afghanistan's Helmand province.
And consider the U.K. weightlifting record that Britain's Zoe Pablo Smith set a week ago Monday, after which she ducked into a Victoria's Secret on the edge of the Olympic Park to do some celebratory shopping. On her blog Smith had rounded on male Internet trolls who targeted her and her teammates for their sport: "[We] prefer our men to be confident enough in themselves to not feel emasculated by the fact that we aren't weak and feeble."
A few people hadn't quite grasped the I-am-woman-watch-me-score spirit of these Games. Beach volleyball, drooled London mayor Boris Johnson (page 84), had delivered to his city "semi-naked women ... glistening like wet otters." But even that sport highlighted the freedom, in the words of Paul McCartney's opening ceremony finale, to let it be. Amidst the thongs and décolletage, a chair umpire, Amina Elsergany of Egypt, commanded matches in hijab.
And so it went: A gymnast, Oksana Chusovitna from Germany, competed on the women's team for artistic gymnastics at age 37. Chinese women, to borrow Mao's phrase, held up more than half their country's medal haul, which led the Games as of Monday. And out at the kayaking venue, Kay Dawson, a judge from New Zealand, held the torch for multitasking moms everywhere, assessing Kiwi paddler Mike Dawson, her son, a penalty for hitting a gate.
With Brunei, Qatar and Saudi Arabia fielding women for the first time, every country in the Olympic movement has now done so. And with their inclusion in boxing on Sunday, women now contest every Olympic sport. Of those two milestones, IOC president Jacques Rogge considers the first the most meaningful, for it was the result of "silent diplomacy" of the most sensitive kind. "We weren't going to make this a public issue," he says. "What counts is the result."
Two of the Arab states that finally sent women suffer from high rates of female diabetes and obesity, but each acted with its own degree of willingness. At one extreme is Qatar, which five years ago launched a campaign to develop school-sports programs for boys and girls alike and build elite facilities, including a sports academy to train young athletes. The country that successfully bid for the 2022 World Cup and has designs on hosting an Olympics doesn't want to be on the wrong side of an emerging global consensus.
At the other extreme is Saudi Arabia, which was threatened with IOC sanctions. The recent death of a conservative crown prince and the ascension of a more moderate replacement helped make the démarche possible. Only three years ago a clerical ruling forbade even single-sex gyms for adult women, and before these Olympics one cleric called women's participation in sports "steps of the devil." Neither of the Saudi female athletes in London—middle-distance runner Sarah Attar and judoka Wojdan Shaherkhani—live or train within the kingdom.
"You can compare what's happening around the world now with what happened in the U.S. 40 years ago," says 1964 swimming gold medalist Donna de Varona, a Title IX crusader in the U.S. who has consulted with the Qataris. "[Title IX] not only transformed sport but our culture."
FOR BRITAIN, women's medals seemed to come from everywhere. A relatively private princess, the queen's granddaughter Zara Phillips helped win a silver in team equestrian. Then the weekend brought gold medals to cyclist Victoria Pendleton and heptathlete Jessica Ennis, pre-Games poster girls who had courted pressure by consenting to virtually any appearance and endorsement opportunity. But after she won the host country's first medal, a silver in the women's road race, cyclist Lizzie Armitstead gave the host nation pause. With poise befitting her painted nails and pearl earrings, she called sexist attitudes in her sport "overwhelming and frustrating" and pleaded for funding equal to the men.
But no sport in Britain suffers from a more chauvinistic culture than soccer. In 1921, only months after a factory team drew 53,000 fans to a women's match, England's Football Association barred women from using the pitches of its clubs, a ban that wasn't lifted until 1972. Now more than a million British girls and young women play the game, with countless more surely enticed by these Olympics. The Brits were eliminated last Friday night by Canada, but not before 70,584 fans had turned out at Wembley Stadium to watch the women beat Brazil as loudspeakers boomed out Beyonce's "Run the World (Girls)."
At the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, British women came home with a single medal, Denise Lewis's bronze in heptathlon. In London, the host country's women, through Monday, were at 16 and counting.
UNTIL EIGHT years ago Botswana was like those laggard Arab states that had never sent a woman to the Games, but for a heartbreakingly different reason. If she had been fortunate enough to avoid being among the third of women between 15 and 25 to test positive for HIV/AIDS, a young woman in Botswana was still likely to be touched by the epidemic, for females of her age wound up having to look after the sick and care for the orphaned. The plague gutted the country's budget and made public health a priority over sports. But the rate of infection for HIV/AIDS has begun to abate, and in 2004, Botswana sent to the Athens Olympics a 21-year-old woman, Amantle Montsho, who grew up on the fringe of the country's huge game preserve, sometimes chasing an ostrich behind her house.
In Sunday night's 400 meters, outleaned for third by DeeDee Trotter of the U.S., Botswana's first female Olympian came within .03 of a second of becoming her country's first medalist in any sport. That Montsho was even that close is partly the result of the IOC's Olympic Solidarity program, which supplies her with a $1,300 monthly stipend and covers the cost of travel to qualifying events. For the past five years, the IAAF also paid for her to live with other African prospects at a training center in Senegal, where she steadily lopped more than three seconds off her personal best to win the world title last year.
The IOC and London organizers have been lacerated for their aggressive protection of their sponsors, but the IOC contends that 94% of its revenue goes back into sports, including grants to nurture the next Montsho. "That money helps make sure the Olympics aren't dominated by just five or six countries," says IOC spokesman Mark Adams. "We need universal elite competition."
It turns out that the current IOC president is a kind of Title IX dad. Rogge's daughter sailed internationally for Belgium, and when the wind kicked up at a youth regatta one day, prompting organizers to threaten to let only boys go out on the water, Caroline Rogge exploded at the outrageousness of that thought. "She was constantly reminding me—not that I needed reminding—that women's rights weren't fully accepted," Rogge says. "I remember discussions about women being allowed in Olympic judo, and there was all kinds of prejudice. The same with discussions to include women's boxing 18 months ago."
Rogge will step down next year, and he concedes that his successor—Thomas Bach of Germany, a former Olympic fencer, is regarded as the favorite—will have further work to do. Women are not welcome in every discipline within each sport; canoeing, wrestling and sailing haven't equalized medal opportunities. Meanwhile critics charge that participants who wear the hijab violate the IOC's Rule 50, which bans religious displays in Olympic venues; countries that require it, they contend, are practicing gender apartheid, and the IOC should treat them as it did South Africa's white-supremacist regime, which was exiled from the Olympics for 21 years. On the eve of the Games, a group called London 2012: Justice for Women placed a copy of the Olympic Charter in a coffin and, with a New Orleans jazz band providing funerary music, marched to the middle of the Westminster Bridge and tossed it into the Thames.
But their voices were an exception. In London most people chose to celebrate how far women have come, rather than rue how far they still have to go. "These are ministeps," de Varona says. "But even if you think they're token gestures, they represent beacons of hope. That every country has sent women, I think, we'll look back at as a watershed."
For what to watch on the Games' final weekend go to SI.com/olympics for the Daily Olympic Briefing.