For The First Time, Female Athletes On U.S. Olympic Team Outnumber Men
by Scott Eckl | Cornell University
In 1967 a junior from Syracuse University attempted to become the first woman to run the Boston Marathon. In the middle of her run for history, Katherine Switzer was almost forced out of the race by an angry official who ran towards her and shouted, “Get the hell out of my race.” Switzer’s boyfriend successfully prevented the official from removing her as Switzer continued running and eventually finished the race. Less than half a century later, U.S. female athletes will outnumber U.S. men on the world’s biggest athletic stage.
The London 2012 Olympics have many storylines, but perhaps the most significant is the story of the woman athlete.
It all began in 1972 with the passage of Title IX of the Education Amendments, effectively eliminating discrimination based on sex from any “education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” Originally aimed at Graduate Schools, Title IX instantly made an impact on high school and collegiate sport programs. Women were made eligible for everything from sport scholarships to equipment and uniforms.
The proportion of high school girls in sports spiked from 1 in 27 in 1972 to 1 in 4 in 1978. Fewer than 295,000 high schools were involved in sports representing less than seven percent of all varsity athletes. In 2001 that number jumped to 2.8 million or 41.5 percent of all varsity athletes. On the college level, the number of female athletes went from 16,000 in 1966 to more than 150,000 in 2001.
Now in 2012, not only will the U.S. team have more women than men, but every single sport will include both genders competing, including boxing, a historically male-dominated sport that hasn’t included women in the Olympics since featuring it as an exhibition in 1902. Additionally, every country will have at least one woman on its team, including hyper-conservative countries such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
“I think this year’s Olympics are going to change things and you will see an increase in the number of girls who start athletics at younger ages,” said Sadie Ellison, a female student-athlete at Cornell University. “It is as though these women are proving, not just saying, that women have the athletic capabilities to do great things and it is okay, as young girls, to spend time on athletics.”
Ellison knows what that’s like firsthand, and reflected on her younger years as a swimmer.
“I was teased a ton when I was in high school and middle school for the fact that I spent upwards of five hours in the pool every day before and after school,” Ellison said. “But this led me to be able to participate in athletics for four years in college, which is one of my greatest accomplishments and points of pride. It also gave me my greatest friendships, joys and failures; you could say my sport has molded me as a person.”
Especially for current female student-athletes like Ellison, the importance of Title IX and its pioneers cannot be understated.
Swin Cash, WNBA star, 2004 Olympic Gold medalist and member of this year’s Olympic squad, shed some light on just how meaningful Title IX has been for athletes like her.
“Imagine you had the skills of a Michelle Wie, Hope Solo or Allyson Felix but you had nowhere to play and no one to teach you how to get better? Cash told the Huffington Post. “Because of Title IX I went on to receive a scholarship to the University of Connecticut… receive a higher education, play [college basketball], and travel the world. From college to the pros, my success on teams at every level in which I played gave me an insight on winning.”
For some insight on winning, there are several women to keep on your radar during these Olympic games. According to Sports Illustrated, women that have good shots at gold include Mariel Zagunis in fencing, Kimberly Rhode in skeet shooting, Allison Schmitt, Missy Franklin, and Rebecca Soni in swimming, the Williams sisters in tennis, Allyson Felix in the 200-meter, and Brittney Reese in long jump.
17-year-old Missy Franklin, a standout in this year’s trials and a resident of Aurora, CO., became the first U.S. woman ever to qualify for seven Olympic events. Franklin said she plans to win big in London so she can “shine some light on Colorado and make them proud.”
Kimberly Rhode also has the potential to make history if she wins a medal in 2012, as she would become the first American athlete to win a medal in five straight Olympic Games. Zagunis of the fencing team has already made history by becoming the first U.S. fencer, male or female, to win a gold medal in over 100 years, in the 2004 Athens Games. She looks to win her third consecutive gold in London.
Despite these impressive stories, there is still much more for women to achieve in sports, particularly with regards to their lack of coverage in the mainstream media.
“I sometimes feel that female athletes are overlooked in favor of the “big time” males, e.g. Lebron, all of the coverage on Blake Griffin’s injury, Beckham not making the team,” Ellison said. “Dara Torres and Janet Evans were swimming in Olympic Trials at the ages of 45 and 40 respectively. Their stories got little to no press and it was the first time in history that athletes of this age group were attempting to make it to athletics’ biggest stage; male or female.”
In general, women’s sport receives less than 5 percent of sports media coverage according to the Huffington Post UK, even though it generally generates decent ratings (i.e. 2011 Women’s World Cup Final USA v. Japan). These Olympics games will work to reverse that trend, as every Olympic event will be available on television for the first time in history.
Beginning on Friday, the U.S. will show off its most talented athletes with one goal in mind — winning gold. But regardless of the medals, this years Olympic games is a definite mile marker in the history of women’s athletics, and hopefully a sign of a positive progression toward sports equality.Scott Eckl is a NGJ Staff Writer and a student in Cornell University's Industrial and Labor Relations School. He was born and raised in Long Island, and is a brother of the Beta Theta Pi fraternity.