Team USA 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 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 this summer when Team USA beat France, 86-50, Saturday for its fifth consecutive Olympic gold medal.
For Fowles and her teammates, it was a crowning achievement.
For the Team USA women, it was another day at the office.
Women have been the stars of these 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; train longer and it 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 LSU, compete in the NCAA Final Four, become drafted in a pro 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 boasts a lineup of 529 athletes, has more women than men for the first time in the Olympic Games: 268 are women and 261 are men. A total of 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, tied with Great Britain. 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.
“It’s amazing,” said gold medal winning shooter Jamie Gray, who benefitted from Title IX with a scholarship to University of Alaska Fairbanks. “It’s an inspiration for women in general to get involved in sports, and I think, honestly, it will change sports.”
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 on the sidelines with Martha Karolyi working 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. Olympic women’s swimming team.
They 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 on this side of the pond were watching them do it. 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 (see: Katie Ledecky, 800-meter freestyle) and then, there were others who are mothers winning gold medals (see: Kerri Walsh Jennings). There are women who won five medals in one Games (see: Missy Franklin, who claimed five medals overall, four gold and Allison Schmitt, three golds, one silver, one bronze) and women who won an individual medal in five consecutive trips to the Olympic Games (see: shooter Kim Rhode).
In fact, some Team USA gold medalists were roommates in the Olympic Village. After Kim Rhode and Jamie Gray won their gold medals in shooting, other athletes dubbed their room, “The Golden Room”.
“It was exciting,” Gray said. “Even though shooting is an individual sport, when there’s success from one person on the team, it’s contagious.”
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 medal in the Games) and 17-year-old Claressa Shields becoming the first U.S. woman to win a gold medal in Olympic women’s boxing. Kayla Harrison became the first U.S. athlete to win a gold medal in judo.
Among the team sports, U.S. women dominated 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 Jen 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 policy making 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 and in the qualifying and final rounds to win the gold medal. At the Aquatic Centre, the U.S. women’s 4 x 100 medley relay, with Missy Franklin, Rebecca Soni, Dana Vollmer and Allison Schmitt, set the world record at 3:52.05, beating 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 4 x 100 relay, 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. So to look up and see that we had a world record, it was just crazy,” said Allyson Felix. “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-meter 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.”
Amy Rosewater is a freelance contributor for TeamUSA.org. This story was not subject to the approval of any National Governing Bodies.