London • They have come here from more than 200 countries speaking dozens of languages to put on the world’s grandest sporting event, but this time it doubles as a revolution. Some of the best athletes on planet Earth are all over this great city, and they’ve already made history.
Historical precedent is being set with thighs like oak trunks, arms like lightning, abs like washboards and calves like jet fuel. Skin color as different as the Swedes and Kenyans. Specialties as different as trampoline and boxing. Hometowns as different as Tokyo and Leavenworth, Kan.
The revolution is powerful and diverse — and it is led by athletes named Jessica and Gabby and Hope.
For the next two weeks, these will be the Olympics of Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt and Team USA men’s basketball. But when history remembers these games, it will be about the women. Lots and lots of women. The Title IX Olympics.
“The development of women in sports is huge,” says Mariel Zagunis, a two-time gold-medal fencer who carried the flag for Team USA during the Opening Ceremony. “I am where I am today because of the women who paved the way. They were the ones who fought for our rights.”
We’ve never seen this many women pushing athletic limits at the Olympics — an important symbol at the world’s most high-profile sporting event.
The United States is represented by more women than men for the first time ever. Russia also has more women competing. One hundred and twelve years after women were first allowed to compete, and 108 years after they were first awarded medals, more women will compete in these games than ever before, whether you count by percentage (45 percent) or total (4,860).
For the first time, every participating country has a woman athlete competing.
Oppressive cultures in Saudi Arabia and Qatar are represented by women for the first time. Women’s boxing is new, so that women now compete in every Olympic sport. The host country’s poster athlete is a woman — heptathlete Jessica Ennis’ face is everywhere here.
Seoul had Ben Johnson’s steroids bust in 1988, Barcelona had the Dream Team in 1992, and Beijing opened the world to much of China in 2008. These games in London just may be remembered as a critical brick in building an overdue sports stage for our world’s women.
And for that, we can thank a woman known as Bunny.
Born in New York City, Bernice “Bunny” Sandler, who is 83 years old, has been dubbed “the Godmother of Title IX” by the New York Times. She’s a senior scholar at the Women’s Research and Education Institute in Washington, D.C., an adjunct associate professor at Drexel University College of Medicine and the author of numerous articles on gender equity. She’s a living pioneer, the driving force behind the development and passage of legislation that four decades ago opened doors for today’s female Olympians.
Sandler never imagined she’d have this kind of reach in 1972, when she and others drafted and championed 37 words of legislation that would change the world:
No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any educational program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.
“I specifically remember this,” Sandler says today. “I remember saying to someone, ‘Isn’t this great? On field day [at schools], there’s going to be more activities for girls.’ ”
Back then, sports were a man’s domain. Some worried about women competing too hard — “that their uteruses would fall out or something,” Sandler says.
When Title IX took effect 40 years ago, signed into law by President Richard Nixon, sexism and sexual harassment were foreign terms. It wasn’t that women weren’t victims of discrimination; it’s just that we didn’t have a good name for it yet.
Passage of the bill into law eventually even shook our country’s sports landscape, and residual progress in social interactions and the business world followed. Twelve bills have been introduced to weaken Title IX’s oversight of sports since its implementation. Five made it to a vote, but none has passed.
In the next two weeks, more women will compete in London than had been in every Olympics combined before Title IX’s passage. That’s not a coincidence. Polls show that 80 percent of Americans support Title IX, and it’s easy to see why.
“It’s all about timing, for me to grow up and have so many opportunities,” says Zagunis, the fencer. “And to have it be no question. It wasn’t, ‘If I will play,’ it’s, ‘What sport will I play?’ ”
Serena Williams has earned more than $38 million, and that’s just for playing tennis. U.S. women’s soccer has turned into a star-maker that would’ve been impossible to imagine 40 years ago, catapulting Hope Solo and Alex Morgan into commercials and higher tax brackets.
Male athletes are still generally more marketable than female athletes, but Title IX pushed America, and America is pulling up the rest of the world.
In 2000, a little more than a year after showing the world her sports bra when the U.S. team won the Women’s World Cup, Brandi Chastain proudly pointed out the good side of losing the Olympic gold-medal soccer game to Norway. The fact that the match had been such a high-profile event proved that women’s sports were progressing.
The most important aspect of this isn’t the athletic achievements, as admirable as they may be, but what those achievements have fostered in our culture. Sports is a great machine for social progress — witness Jackie Robinson’s role in the civil rights movement.
“What we are seeing with the London Olympics is a reflection of the growth and impact of Title IX,” Billie Jean King, the tennis icon and a leading voice for women’s sports, told reporters recently. “We now have a stronger foundation for future generations of female Olympians, and we need to remain committed to sustaining this movement and the progress we are making, here in the USA and globally.”
That last part is important. For all the progress that’s been made, more is still needed.
Medals collected by female athletes and teams in London over the next 17 days will help.
Storylines might come from Claressa “T-Rex” Shields, a 17-year-old boxer from Flint, Mich. Women’s boxing was added to the Olympics for the first time this year, and Shields is the youngest on the inaugural American squad.
Or American swimmer Missy Franklin, also young at 17. Nicknamed “The Missile” for her prowess in the pool, this Colorado native will have the opportunity to win multiple medals in the next two weeks.
Maybe one day she’ll catch up to Natalie Coughlin, 29, another swimmer who on Saturday tied fellow Americans Jenny Thompson and Dara Torres as our country’s most decorated female Olympians of all time with a staggering 12th medal — which Coughlin received for her role on the 4x100 relay team, even though she didn’t swim in the finals.
Perhaps we’ll be captivated by Malaysian shooter Nur Suryani Mohamed Taibi, who’s competing during these games despite the fact that she’s more than eight months pregnant.
Or two-time U.S. champion gymnast Jordyn Wieber, a 17-year-old Michigan native who won the all-around title at the 2011 World Championships. Wieber’s teammate, little Gabby Douglas, is another to watch. Born in Virginia but trained in Des Moines, Iowa, she showed off the depth of the U.S. team by beating Wieber at the U.S. Olympic Trials.
And then there’s American sprinter Allyson Felix. Denied 200-meter gold by Jamaican adversary Veronica Campbell-Brown in both 2004 and 2008, this could be the year the 26-year-old Californian earns some measure of vindication.
The fact that we’ll have so many talented women to watch, not just from our own country but abroad, is testament to the legacy of Title IX.
An interesting footnote for the historical record: If the American men’s soccer team hadn’t given up a last-minute goal to El Salvador in a qualifying match, it likely would’ve made it to these Olympics and given Team USA more men than women.
Some countries, like Japan and Australia, flew their men’s teams to London business class while their women flew coach. The popularity and marketability of female athletes still relies on physical appearance far more than it does for male athletes.
And there’s the prism through which we should view these games: more remains to be done. Greater acceptance and promotion of gender equality in America only exposes the backward thinking in other places.
Saudi Arabia, for instance, is taking a real step this summer in allowing women to compete. But the Saudis did so only under intense pressure from the outside world. One of their women, Sarah Attar, was born and raised in California and speaks no Arabic. Her family asked Pepperdine, where she runs track, to delete pictures and names of relatives from her online profile.
As Olympic historian David Wallechinsky points out, the important thing isn’t whether Attar and other women from traditionally oppressive countries can compete as much as whether they can be celebrated in those countries. Symbolism matters, but only if the message gets across.
“I just think, do you really think they’re going to show her running in Saudi Arabia?” Wallechinsky says. “You really think they’ll be uplifted?”
This is where we can be reminded of the progress still to be made, even back home in America. Participation in girls’ high school sports has risen 900 percent since the passage of Title IX. But Sandler — the godmother of that pivotal legislation — points out that girls in the U.S. still have fewer opportunities today than boys did 40 years ago.
The revolution continues.
©2012 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)