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.
This is how it happens: A dozen women, isolated outliers, are so committed to playing for their country that they will practically starve for the honor. The first American women’s basketball team in ’76, captained by Pat Head Summitt and featuring Ann Meyers Drysdale among others, had a budget of $500. They held training camp in an unairconditioned gym in Warrensburg, Mo., because it was the cheapest facility they could find, and they begged meals from the rotary club.
“We’d do anything for free food for the team,” Moore says.
Bill Wall, the executive director of USA basketball, stepped forward and put up his personal credit card to support their attempt to make it into the Montreal Games. When they won the qualifying tournament, they were such a surprise that nobody had made any accommodations for them.
They found an empty dormitory that was under construction at the University of Rochester, and bunked there for a few days amid the sound of hammering. Then they moved into a two-bedroom condo in Montreal someone had found them — 12 players and the coaching staff. Some of them slept on cots in the kitchen. “And no one complained,” Moore says.
“We were just happy to have beds,” Meyers-Drysdale remembers. “We had one pair of shoes: our own sneakers. Not like today where heaven forbid your game shoes should touch asphalt.”
They were one of the most unexpected success stories of Montreal, reaching the gold medal game. They were overmatched by the world champion Russians in the final — the 5-foot-11 Summitt had to go against 7-foot Russian center Uljana Semjonova — but they brought home their country’s first-ever Olympic medal in the sport, a silver.
“I remember very clearly saying to the players, trying to make them understand what a moment in time we had,” Moore says. “What an impact we could have. There would be a lot of Olympians that would follow, but there would only be one time when they were the first.”
This is how it happens: a steady drumbeat of success over so many years, wearing away at obstacles, pursuing a metal disc that says you have value because you won something, until eventually you look around and there are soccer players, shooters, gymnasts, weightlifters, boxers and judokas wearing them too, and it begins to look like the winner’s podium just might be genderless.