Women outmedaled men for the United States, China, and Russia. I’ll say that again: The leading medal winners for the three traditional Olympic powerhouses were women — despite the fact that there were 30 fewer medals available to be won. We can talk all we want about the financial complexities of Title IX, or try to analyze the stratospheric growth of women’s sports by country or culture, but the bottom line was that the London Games defined something crucial: It can’t happen if it isn’t available. With no gold medal to aspire to, no one gets better.
“If you get enough people caring about the same thing, good things happen,” says Billie Moore, who coached the first U.S. women’s Olympic basketball team to a silver medal in 1976.
This is how it happens: A few women who really care about something are willing to put up with just about anything in order to compete. To some, the presence here of the first women athletes from the Islamic nations of Saudi Arabia, Brunei and Qatar was “tokenism.” But if it created even one more opportunity for a woman, then there was nothing token about it.
Because this is how it happens: In 1976, Margaret Thompson Murdock became the first woman shooter ever make an American team. She might have been a token, but she was also a major in the U.S. Army, and she tied with her team captain Lanny Bassham in a rifle event for gold. Olympic rules prohibited a shoot-off, so the gold medal went to Bassham, while she got the silver. As the anthem played, Bassham pulled her up on the podium with him.
This is how it happens: In the 1984 Los Angeles Games, only 24 percent of the athletes were women. In the 1992 Barcelona Games, they were only 25 percent of the competitors. By the 1996 Games it increased to 36 percent, and by the 2008 Beijing Games, that figure exploded to 42 percent, and in London it was 44 percent, with every country sending at least one woman. The International Olympic Committee’s goal is 50-50 participation eventually. But an even more important benchmark would be to make the medal opportunities equal. Because that means that someday, as 17-year-old gold medalist Claressa Shields said, “There will be 30 of us in every event, and they will treat us fair.”
In London, the USA women’s basketball team stayed in the very same elegant five-star hotel as the men’s team led by Kobe Bryant and LeBron James and Kevin Durant. Training table was shrimp risotto. They have traveled and boarded as equals with their male counterparts ever since the Atlanta Games in 1996, for the simple reason that they have played the game so well for so long that the people at USA basketball and the NBA-WNBA had to recognize the stunning accomplishment: They have won an Olympic record five straight gold medals, seven gold overall, with a record of 58-3 since that first Olympics in ’76. To repeat: Women who play basketball for our country have lost just three Olympic games in 36 years. That’s one loss every 12 years.