Success of U.S. women at London Games buoyed by gender equity progress

Alex Morgan’s 123rd-minute header against Canada at Old Trafford — one of the most dramatic moments at these Olympics — did more than just clinch a spot for the United States in the women’s gold-medal soccer game. It served as an exclamation point to 10 days of unprecedented dominance by American female athletes and an affirmation on the 40th anniversary of Title IX that women have made great strides in sports.

Less than 24 hours after the soccer thriller, the U.S. women’s basketball team routed Canada 91-48 in the quarterfinals, extending the team’s win streak to 39 games over the past 20 years. That is not a typo. Exactly 20 years ago to the day (July 7, 1992), the United States won the bronze-medal game at the Barcelona Olympics and has won every game since. If it beats Australia in Thursday’s semifinal, the United States would play for its fifth consecutive gold medal on Saturday.

Canadian coach Allison McNeill said of Team USA: “The American women’s basketball team may just be the most dominant team in team sports.”

A few hours after the basketball team’s victory Tuesday, beach volleyball players Kerri Walsh Jennings and Misty May-Treanor clinched a spot in the gold-medal match. Also, the world’s U.S. women’s volleyball team, ranked No. 1 in the world, was heavily favored to beat the Dominican Republic in a quarterfinal after going 5-0 in group play.

As of early Tuesday evening, the U.S. women had outperformed the U.S. men, winning 20 gold medals to the men’s 10, and 36 overall to 29.

“There is no doubt in anybody’s mind this is a direct function of our having the strongest sports law in the world as far as gender equity,” said Donna Lopiano, the former president of the Women’s Sports Foundation and now a consultant with Sports Management Resources. “And we haven’t seen the end of it. It started with individual sports, then the team sports kicked in at the ’96 Olympics, and next you’re going to see us winning in traditional men’s sports such as wrestling, boxing and weightlifting. It’s a domino effect.

“We are way ahead of the world in the rights of women to compete, and young girls now are making demands because of the images they are seeing through global media, images like what we are witnessing at these Olympics.”

Michael Phelps got most of the publicity at the swimming pool, and deservedly so as the most decorated Olympian of all time.

But a story that didn’t get as much attention was the historic performance by American female swimmers. Led by teenagers Missy Franklin and Katie Ledecky, the women had their most successful meet since the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, which were boycotted by many of the top Eastern European swimmers. This women’s swimming team won 14 medals overall (eight gold), a huge improvement over the two it won in Beijing and three in Athens. The team even had a female coach for the first time, University of California’s Teri McKeever.

At the gymnastics venue, the American pixies proved to be the most successful U.S. team in history. Gabby Douglas won gold in the all-around competition, and also joined forces with Aly Raisman, Jordyn Wieber, McKayla Maroney and Kyla Ross to win the team gold medal. Their combined score of 183.595 was more than five points better than silver medalist Russia, a huge gap by gymnastics standards. They finished first in the vault, beam and floor exercise.

On Tuesday, Raisman added to the medal haul with a gold in the floor exercise and a bronze in beam.

At the rowing venue near Windsor Castle, the American women’s eight team repeated as Olympic champions. The team is undefeated in the past four years.

U.S. basketball player Candace Parker said the women feed off success of American teammates in other sports.

“I’ve always been a fan of women’s team sports, ever since I was a kid,” she said. “I remember watching Magnificent Seven gymnasts in ’96 , Mia Hamm’s soccer team, Lisa Leslie on the basketball team. I’ve always been a fan. We do kind of feed off each other. It’s kind of like a standard we’ve all set. We watched USA succeed, and once we get our opportunity, we want to continue that tradition.”

Added teammate Tamika Catchings: “It’s just a pride thing we all have whether we know each other or don’t. The Olympics is highest of highest of levels for female athletes. We are celebrating Title IX, 40 years, the first year there are more women competing at the Olympics than men. Now, look at the performance, especially from our standpoint, the U.S. women being able to come out and do so well in so many sports. It’s been amazing to see.”

But all is not equal for the American female Olympians. Despite the remarkable success of the women’s basketball team, they get barely a fraction of coverage that the men’s team gets.

U.S. coach Geno Auriemma was particularly disappointed with the lack of coverage of their 114-66 win over China over the weekend and voiced his displeasure after Tuesday’s game.

“We played one of the games of the ages against China, in terms of how we executed,” he said. “Somebody happened to leave a USA Today International edition around. I opened it to read about the Olympics. There wasn’t one line written about that game the next day. Not one. But the top 10 preseason college football poll was there.

“So, yeah. We have a mind-set we really don’t care. We’re way past that. There are no feminists on my team. We’re not running around burning our bras trying to make people believe in our team. I mean, I would burn mine ’cause it doesn’t fit like it used to. We just play basketball and whether anybody cares or writes about it, there’s nothing we can do about that. We’re not in the [public relations] business, we’re in the basketball business and we’re pretty damned good at it.”

Lopiano believes that, too, will change with time. “The next generation will demand equality in sports media and TV. The images of these athletes today will be cemented in them, and things will keep changing.”

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