Members of Team USA gather before their field hockey match against Team India in preparation for the Olympic Games Rio 2016 on July 18, 2016 in Manheim, Pa.
As Team USA marks the 45th anniversary of the passage of Title IX, which legislated gender equality in education, we take a look at how the law has impacted women in the Olympics since its passage in 1972.
Historic participation numbers and medals in 2016. Winning streaks and dominance by many American women’s teams. Increased opportunities in sports once considered only the domain of men. Title IX has led to strength in women’s athletics today that could hardly be imagined 45 years ago.
“Title IX reaffirms that sport opportunities belong to everyone and we are incredibly proud that the United States has been at the forefront for equality in sports – both in the Olympic and Paralympic movements, and through our collegiate athletic system,” said Sarah Wilhelmi, USOC director of collegiate partnerships. “I join countless female athletes worldwide who have benefited from Title IX, and I’m grateful that my two little girls will be able to learn the life lessons I did through participation in sport.
"In its 45-year history, Title IX has provided millions of girls and women the opportunity to dream, develop and realize their true potential. Nowhere was this more evident than in Rio, where Team USA fielded the largest female contingency to ever compete at an Olympic Games and American women set a record with 61 medals. In the U.S., young girls whose names won’t be known for years to come are now on the path to achievement thanks to what Team USA accomplished in Rio – a true testament to the impact of Title IX, which we celebrate today.”
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Here are just some examples of the impact Title IX has had women's Olympic sports.
How Far We've Come
The Olympic Games in Munich were held the year Title IX was passed, in 1972. Of the 400 athletes representing the United States in West Germany, only 84 were women. Women won a total of 23 medals in archery, diving, swimming, and track and field. The men, meanwhile, won 71 medals. Forty years later, at the 2012 Olympics in London, for the first time ever, U.S. women outnumbered the men in both representation (269 to 261) and medals won (58 to 45). In Rio, women once again outnumbered men, 294-264. It was the largest female contingent ever sent by any nation to the Olympic Games. And once again, American women won more medals than men, 61-55, plus another five in mixed events, as well as 27 of the United States' 46 gold medals.
The U.S. women’s medal haul in Rio was so substantial that had they competed as their own country, they would have ranked third among all nations in the overall medal chart and tied for first in the gold-medal count with 27.
U.S. women also claimed more than half of Team USA’s medals at the Rio Paralympics (70) and had three podium sweeps in triathlon and track and field.
Teamwork Makes The Dream Work
Team sports played at the college level have led to resounding success at the Olympic level. In basketball, rowing, water polo, soccer, softball and ice hockey, the United States produces powerhouses. The women’s basketball team has won gold at the last six Olympic Games. In rowing, the women’s eight boat has won Olympic gold at the last three. In 2016, the women’s water polo team became the first to repeat as Olympic champions since the sport’s inclusion for women in 2000, with 12 college players on its 13-player roster. The women’s soccer team won three consecutive Olympic gold medals before an upset knocked them out in the quarterfinals in 2016. The women’s ice hockey team won the first-ever Olympic gold medal in 1998 and hasn’t missed the podium since. Softball was added in 1996 and the United States won three consecutive golds and a silver before the sport was dropped from the Games beginning in 2012 (it will be back in 2020).
Many successful athletes in individual sports and smaller teams are also the products of college athletics. The most decorated beach volleyball Olympian of all time, Kerri Walsh Jennings played indoor volleyball while on scholarship at Stanford University, where she led the Cardinal to three final four appearances and two NCAA titles. Ginny Thrasher, who won the first gold medal of the 2016 Games in rifle, was at the time just beginning her sophomore year at West Virginia, where she became the first-ever freshman to sweep NCAA titles in smallborne and air rifle. Gwen Jorgensen, who swam and ran for the University of Wisconsin, gave Team USA its first gold medal in triathlon in 2016. Helen Maroulis won the first gold medal in wrestling by an American woman and continues to be an outspoken advocate for women’s college wrestling.
In addition, there are numerous Olympic athletes who have chosen to compete at the college level even after achieving Olympic success. Katie Ledecky, who dominated and won four gold medals in Rio, began her freshman year at Stanford when she returned home from the Games; she has since led the Cardinal to Pac-12 and NCAA titles. Similarly, Missy Franklin returned home from London in 2012 with four gold medals and began her college career at the University of California, Berkeley. She has since turned pro but led Cal to an NCAA title in 2015.
Brains And Brawn
It’s difficult to go through lists of the greatest female athletes in Olympic history and not find a host of U.S. athletes with college ties. Jackie Joyner Kersee, one of the all-time greats in heptathlon and long jump, was a track and basketball standout at UCLA. She redshirted one year midway through her career to focus on the Olympic Games Los Angeles 1984. Dara Torres, one of the few Olympians to medal in five different games, was a standout swimmer for the University of Florida.
A number of sports contested by Team USA in 2016 had 90 to 100 percent of their athletes (men and women) with a background in college athletics: basketball, diving, fencing, field hockey, indoor volleyball, rowing, triathlon, soccer, swimming, water polo and track and field.
Of the 558 athletes on Team USA, 439 (including men) competed collegiately; 176 of the 211 U.S. medalists either had competed or were en route to competing collegiately.
Some NCAA student-athletes who went on to Olympic success in the sports in which they competed in college found additional Olympic success crossing over. Lately, former college track stars who competed at the Olympics have gone on to make their marks in winter sports as well. Lauryn Williams, who went to the University of Miami, became the first U.S. woman to win a medal in both the summer and winter Games when she won a bobsled silver medal in 2014 to go along with the gold she won in the 4x100-meter in 2012 and the silver in the 100-meter in 2004. Two-time Olympic hurdler Lolo Jones also competed in bobsled in 2014 and continues her involvement in the sport today. The U.S. women's bobsled team is full of crossover athletes; Elana Meyers Taylor starred in softball for George Washington University, Aja Evans competed in shot put and sprint events at the University of Illinois, and Jamie Greubel Poser was a member of the track team at Cornell University where she competed in the heptathlon and pentathlon.
Even in recent years, athletes who’ve competed in the Olympics used Title IX to find their own opportunities while still in school. 2016 Olympian Adeline Gray, for instance, wasn’t allowed to wrestle on her high school team because she was a girl, but successfully used the legislation to change administrators’ minds.
A New Generation Of Leaders
With girls getting more opportunities in education, female athletes are now rising to leadership positions both in and out of sport. Angela Ruggiero, a four-time Olympic medalist in ice hockey and 2015 inductee of the Hockey Hall of Fame, graduated cum laude from Harvard University and currently serves as a member of the International Olympic Committee and U.S. Olympic Committee Board of Directors. In both positions, Ruggiero serves alongside Anita DeFrantz, a 1976 Olympic rowing bronze medalist and 1980 U.S. Olympic Team member who went on to work as an attorney, for the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee and as a steward of the Women's Sports Foundation.
But athletes don't have to be retired to be making their mark on the world at large. Gevvie Stone, who won silver in women's single sculls rowing in Rio, finished medical school before the Olympics and is currently in the midst of her residency in orthopedic surgery. Fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad won saber team bronze in Rio and was the first U.S. athlete to compete in a hijab at the Olympics. She has since been named one of TIME Magazine's 100 Most Influential People in 2016 and serves on the U.S. Department of State's Empowering Women and Girls Through Sport Initiative.
Karen Price is a reporter from Pittsburgh who has covered Olympic sports for various publications. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.