Team USA: The Women's London Olympic Games
Amy Rosewater, 2012 London Summer Olympics
U.S. basketball player Sylvia Fowles knew exactly what to get Title IX for its 40th birthday: another Olympic gold medal.
"It's the perfect birthday gift, right?" the 6 foot, 6 inch center said. Fowles was part of the U.S. women's basketball team that won the gold medal in Beijing four years ago and she was in London when Team USA beat France, 86-50, for its fifth consecutive Olympic gold medal.
For Fowles and her teammates, it was a crowning achievement. For the women of Team USA, it was another day at the office.
Women have been the stars of these Olympic Games, and it's no coincidence that their success has coincided with the 40th anniversary of Title IX, the federal legislation signed into law by President Richard Nixon that banned discrimination on the basis of sex from participating in, among other things, sports, at federally funded educational institutions. This meant that a whole generation of women could get college athletic scholarships, which opened the doors for professional leagues such as the WNBA.
Fowles, who was born in 1985 -- 13 years after Title IX went into effect -- had the opportunity to earn a scholarship at Louisiana State University, compete in the NCAA Final Four, become drafted to the professional league and play in two Olympic Games.
For the first time in Olympic history, every nation that competed in the Games had a female athlete on its roster, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei. And Team USA, which boasted a lineup of 533 athletes, has more women than men for the first time in the Olympic Games (270 are women and 263 are men). Overall, 4,688 women represented 204 nations in London this summer. Consider this: The last time London was the Olympic host city in 1948, there were 4,104 athletes and only 390 were women. By 1996, when Atlanta played host and the Games were dubbed, "The Year of the Woman," 3,512 of the 10,318 athletes were women.
Women were not included in the inaugural Games of the modern era in 1896, but they did compete in 1900 and have been making their mark in the Olympic Movement ever since. But nothing has compared to their performances this summer.
A lot has been made of Michael Phelps and his collection of 22 Olympic swimming medals, the most earned by any Olympic athlete. Some have joked that he should compete as his own country: Phelpslandia.
But consider this:
If Team USA's women competed as their own nation, they would rank an astounding third in the gold-medal count. The U.S. women won 58 of a total 104 medals, plus contributed to the one tennis mixed doubles medal. Of the 46 gold medals earned by Team USA, 29 were secured by the women.
Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a swimming gold medalist in 1984 and a Title IX legal expert, has long known the benefits of the federal law, among them, better education for women, better employment opportunities and health benefits.
"As if a healthier, better educated workforce and a more productive economy wasn't enough reason to love Title IX -- now we have these gold medalists to cheer for the USA," Hogshead-Makar said. "Thank you Title IX."
Everywhere you looked during these Games, women were featured prominently, and often on the top of the medal stand. A woman, fencer Mariel Zagunis, was named Team USA's flag bearer for the Opening Ceremony. Women were also on the sidelines, with Martha Karolyi serving as the national coordinator for the gold-medal women's gymnastics team and Teri McKeever as the first woman to serve as the head coach of the U.S. women's swimming team.
Women were also were taking on big roles behind the scenes, with five-time Olympic basketball player Teresa Edwards working as the chef de mission for Team USA (another woman, Aimee Mullins, will have the same role for the United States for the upcoming Paralympic Games).
Not only were women scoring victories, but fans were watching them do it stateside. Team USA's gold medal-winning soccer match against Japan, for instance, drew 4.35 million viewers and had a national household rating of 2.74, making it the most-watched and highest rated event ever on NBC Sports Network. And women have been splashed on magazine covers with gymnast Gabby Douglas featured on People and the entire Team USA women's gymnastics team on the cover of Sports Illustrated.
Team USA's women represented all ages, sizes and ethnic backgrounds.
Some women were as young as 15 winning gold medals, such as Katie Ledecky (800-meter freestyle); and then, there were others who are mothers winning gold medals like Kerri Walsh Jennings (beach volleyball). There are women who won five medals in one Games, including swimmers Missy Franklin, who claimed five medals overall (four golds) and Allison Schmitt, who captured three golds, one silver and one bronze. And there were also one woman -- U.S. shooter Kim Rhode -- who won an individual medal in five consecutive trips to the Olympic Games.
And there were women making history, as evidenced by Gabby Douglas becoming the first African-American woman to win the Olympic all-around gold medal (and the first to win both the all-around and the team gold medals in the Games). The 17-year-old middleweight Claressa Shields becoming the first U.S. woman to win a gold medal in Olympic women's boxing, and Kayla Harrison became the first U.S. athlete to win a gold medal in judo.
Among the team events, U.S. women performed on the courts, in the pool and in the famed Wembley Stadium.
The American women won gold medals in basketball, water polo, soccer and women's eight (rowing). The U.S. women's indoor volleyball team came close to another title, but lost to Brazil in the gold-medal game Saturday.
In beach volleyball, however, the U.S. women were so dominant that the gold-medal match was between two American teams, with Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings winning their third-consecutive Olympic gold medal and April Ross and Jennifer Kessy earning the silver. In diving, the synchronized team of Kelci Bryant and Abby Johnston took the silver, marking the first time the United States earned a medal in the sport since 2000.
The woman who presented the Olympic gold medals to the U.S. women's water polo team was a prominent woman in the IOC: Anita DeFrantz, an Olympic rower who has been the chair of the IOC Women and Sport Commission since 1995. For DeFrantz, it was the culmination of plenty of work behind the scenes, since water polo was added to the Olympic program in 2000 and it has been DeFrantz's goal to increase the number of women on the field of Olympic play.
The other goal was to make the Olympic program open to men and women, and for the first time in London with the addition of women's boxing, women could compete in all of the sports that men could.
Still, DeFrantz said, there is more work to come.
"The IOC set goals in 1996 to have at least 20 percent of all policymaking boards comprised of women by 2005," she said. "While we did not achieve that goal until this year ourselves, many policy boards in sport did achieve it."
On the field, the women showed their might. U.S. women won medals, but also broke world and Olympic records, bringing new meaning to faster, higher, stronger.
At the Royal Artillery Barracks, shooter Jamie Gray, competing in the 50-meter rifle three-position event, broke Olympic records in the qualifying and final rounds to win the gold medal. At the Aquatic Centre, the U.S. women's 4x100 medley team, with Franklin, Rebecca Soni, Dana Vollmer and Schmitt, set the world record at 3:52.05, topping the silver medalists from Australia by 1.97 seconds. Later in the Games at the Olympic Stadium, Team USA track stars Tianna Madison, Allyson Felix, Bianca Knight and Carmelita Jeter broke the world record in the 4x100, finishing in 40.82 seconds and beating the previous record of 41.37 set by the East Germans in 1985.
"For so long, we've looked at women's sprints and records have been so out of reach," said Felix. "So to look up and see that we had a world record, it was just crazy. You don't think anything like that will ever happen."
Witnessing these women's achievements on the track was none other than Benita Fitzgerald-Mosley, the first African-American woman to win the Olympic gold medal in the 100 hurdles in 1984, who has been in London as the chief of sport performance for USA Track & Field. For her, the results in London have been the culmination of decades of work from women on the field and off it.
And for her, the timing of the success couldn't be any sweeter. "As we celebrate the 40th anniversary of Title IX, it is most fitting that women have taken their rightful place on the world's biggest stage," Fitzgerald-Mosley said. "Women of all nationalities have proven that we can perform extraordinary feats of athletic prowess, if only given the chance."
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