It’s beyond Girl Power. For Team USA, women are leading the way, captivating America.
It’s a man’s world. Or so they say. And perhaps this cliché has been most pervasive in the world of sports, a field male-dominated in opportunities, ratings, and revenue. And the great USA isn’t immune to contributing to this pattern. One need only look at the salary disparity between players in the NBA and WNBA, or at the ratings disparity between the Super Bowl and the night our women played in the World Cup final. The men draw the crowds. The men sell the jerseys. The men, according to some, present faster, stronger feats of athleticism. For now, and since always, it’s a man’s world.
But the 2012 Team USA Women have something to say about that:
Not so fast. When Big Ben struck eight o’clock on the London evening of August 10th, the USA held the lead in the Olympic medal count, narrowly eclipsing China in the race for pride and prowess. And certainly, many men have played their part, including the much storied heroics of Michael Phelps and Ashton Eaton. But this is a torch that our women have carried.
Of the 90* medals that have been placed upon the chests of American athletes this summer, 51 of them have covered the hearts of women. Of 39 American Gold Medal efforts, 26 women (or women’s teams) have earned the right to hear the Star-Spangled Banner and stand atop the highest place on the podium. USA Women, in accounting for 51 medals, have earned more medals than all but four entire countries. There’s something significant about that.
*Medal counts as of 3:00pm EST on 8/10
But the importance of this moment for women’s athletics goes beyond the success. It’s one thing for American women to prove their prowess amongst other female athletes of the world. That, in itself, has perhaps been historic. But what bodes most promising for the state of female sport is a simple, but powerful notion: We’re watching. We’re captivated. We’re inspired.
Team USA’s women have not only compiled medals. They’ve compiled compelling story after compelling story, forcing the American public to question that idea that sports is a man’s world –that male athletics are naturally more captivating. While much of the narrative belonged to Michael Phelps this summer, most of the faces that are defining the memories of Team USA’s Olympics are strong…and they’re female.
The Olympics aren’t yet over. But consider the following storylines we’ve already witnessed from the women of Team USA:
Sixteen-year old Gabby Douglas stole the hearts and attentions of America with her performance in the gymnastics all-around. More than a beautiful smile and a youthful spirit, she proved to be a fierce competitor. And in winning the Gold Medal, she did more than bring pride to her country; she broke barriers that have persisted worldwide. Douglas, in victory, was the first African-American, and first women of color throughout the world, to win the individual gold.
On the grass of Wimbledon, another African-American woman and breaker of barriers delivered one of the most dominating performances in Olympic History. Serena Williams’ Gold Medal run culminated in a straight-set victory over Maria Sharapova (6-0, 6-1), making one of the best players in the world look like she’d never set foot in a country club. Serena, throughout the entire tournament, never lost a set. And, oh by the way, she also won gold in Tennis Doubles with her sister, Venus –not too shabby. The Gold Medal for Serena helped bring attention to one of the greatest female athletes in American history –a women with modest beginnings who has since gone on to win fourteen singles Grand Slam titles, thirteen doubles Grand Slam titles, and now, one of the most inspired Olympic performances in sporting memory.
But all of this came on the heels of the USA Women’s swim team. They had us captivated from the very start, in a way that London’s lackluster Opening Ceremony never did. In the opening days of the Olympics, the USA women’s swim team won eight gold medals. And they did it in dominating fashion. Six of those gold medals were accompanied by Olympic records; four of them were world records.
Along the way, a fresh face captivated the American audience as the swim meets progressed. Seventeen-year-old Missy Franklin became a household name and the source of many a pumped fist in living rooms across the country. Not even old enough to vote, Franklin amassed four gold medals and a bronze while in London. And despite all of that, she’s reportedly turned down thousands of dollars in endorsement deals, so that she can still swim with her amateur teammates back in the states. Now that takes a strength of conviction that few men or women have.
It turns out that our women dominate on both land and sea. While the youth of Missy Franklin prevailed in the pool, a couple of veterans were showing they still owned the Olympic sand. Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh only dropped one set in several matches on their way to securing their third straight gold medal in Beach Volleyball. In what appears to be the last appearance of the dynamic duo in the Olympic Games, they went out on top, helping the ratings for their sport to soar even higher.
But perhaps nothing has captivated the American attention more than the recent Gold Medal run by the US Women’s Soccer team. The deciding games against Canada and Japan had everything a sports fan can ask for: drama, controversy, last-second heroics, debatable calls, head-stomps, fans in cardiac arrest –you name it! We were spellbound. While it may not feel like the cleanest victory of the USA Olympic legacy, fans of female sports have to realize the implications of what we just witnessed. Not only did the women come out on top, but the fans back home cared immensely. We’re still talking about these matches, debating their merit, and finding ways to insult Canadians that dare to question the rightfulness of American victory. It’s the kind of talk-show antics we usually save for football. It’s the kind of drama we only expect to see in March Madness. It’s the kind of sports we think only men can deliver. Wrong again.
There are so many names not on this list. There are so many female athletes in these games not only taking their sports by storm, but stealing the world’s attention. For example, our female basketball team just won its 40th straight Olympic game. That’s more than special. It’s freaking legendary.
Americans pride themselves in leading the way in this world. We like to believe we’re forward-thinking, forward-moving –a land of equality and progression. If that is so, then let’s forget the medal counts for a second and celebrate this: our victorious team is riding on the shoulders of its women. The numbers bear repeating. 26 of 39 Gold Medals. 51 of 90 total medals. And more importantly, the nation is behind them. The nation is watching and can’t take their eyes away –not from the bodies, but the sport. Not from the women, but from the feats of athleticism they are giving us.
In this way, America is certainly leading the way. Let’s celebrate that. We live in a world where Saudi Arabia just sent its first ever female track athlete to the Olympic Games. In 2012. Sarah Attar, in breaking that boundary, became a hero to her country. But there is still much progress to be made, throughout the world, and even here at home. So perhaps it can start here, with these Olympic Games. Perhaps it can begin with America celebrating the female athlete not as a body, or an anomaly, or a separate category –but as what they truly are: athletes worth watching.