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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.Next Page >
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