“We were a little tight,” star forward Megan Rapinoe said Wednesday night, “a little nervous.”
Nerves, for American women? For so long, they have spoiled us so rotten that such an assessment — tight, nervous — is unsettling.
To be sure, this is a bump, not a calamity, and the Americans probably will advance out of group play to the knockout round. But it’s a measure of how successful and strong U.S. women have been at the Olympics dating back more than a generation that such a result is so jarring. That’s not just true in soccer but over the entirety of the program that lies ahead.
Quick, before the Games begin, name the biggest American stars set to compete here.
The first answer has to be Simone Biles, right? She is the best gymnast in history, groundbreaking and daring, and she arrives in Tokyo as a powerful athlete with marketing appeal beyond just the next three weeks. Right behind her is probably Katie Ledecky, the dominant freestyle swimmer.
Yes, Kevin Durant is an NBA superstar, but the Olympics are just his side hustle. Caeleb Dressel could break out as a swimmer in an Olympic world that, for the first time in a long time, doesn’t include Michael Phelps, but that hasn’t happened yet. Noah Lyles boasted about winning three gold medals in the sprints — and then didn’t qualify in the 100 meters.
Meanwhile, the pool of American women is established and deep. As basketball player A’ja Wilson said Wednesday, “It’s just one of those things where, if you can see her, you can be her.” She was speaking about her coach both at the University of South Carolina and at these Games, Dawn Staley — a gold medalist as a player in 1996. But, really, that’s a motto for any American girl growing up and turning on the Olympics. In almost any sport, there’s a role model.
It plays out in the composition of the American team. For the third straight Olympics, the U.S. roster boasts more women (329) than men (284). The women, too, are decorated in ways the men aren’t. Sprinter Allyson Felix owns nine Olympic medals, swimmer Allison Schmitt has eight, and six other women have at least four. No American male arrives in Tokyo with more than three.
Five years ago in Rio de Janeiro, the United States won 46 gold medals. Women helped produce 28 of them — 27 as individuals or teams and one in mixed doubles tennis. Know how many countries won as many as 28 gold medals in the entire Rio Games? Zero.
For Team USA, this was the continuation of a trend that began in 1996 in Atlanta. Those Olympics had roots in Title IX, the 1970s federal legislation that prohibited gender bias in any education program that receives federal funds. What resulted: generations of girls who expected to kick tail in sports, from Mia Hamm to Jennie Finch to Lindsey Vonn to Biles and the other medal favorites here.
Their positions, too, are only strengthening — both in competition and outside it. Felix left Nike because she felt the shoe and apparel maker — so powerful for so long — didn’t adequately support women, particularly after she became a mother. Biles also ditched Nike and signed with Athleta, which will have her design her own line of apparel.
“I felt like it wasn’t just about my achievements; it’s what I stood for and how they were going to help me use my voice and also be a voice for females and kids,” Biles told the Wall Street Journal when the deal was announced. “I feel like they also support me not just as an athlete but just as an individual outside of the gym and the change that I want to create, which is so refreshing.”
Think about how much has changed in the five years since Biles first won the all-around and Ledecky took four golds. The #MeToo movement brought unprecedented understanding of and discussion about sexual harassment. The members of the U.S. women’s soccer team fought its governing body over equal working conditions and pay, a courtroom struggle that’s ongoing. And, shoot, there’s a female vice president, too.
So get out of the way — of all of them. The U.S. women’s basketball team, pursuing its fifth straight gold medal, last lost at an Olympics in 1992 — before six of this team’s 12 players were born. The winning streak is 49 games. In 2016, the Americans’ closest margin of victory was 26 points.
The U.S. softball team opened its Games on Wednesday with a 2-0 victory over Italy behind 38-year-old pitcher/stepmom Cat Osterman. Even if it’s a sport that wasn’t on the program in 2012 or 2016 and won’t stick around — it’s not on the schedule for Paris in 2024 — this U.S. squad will be fun to watch in Japan as it goes for what would be a fifth gold medal in its past six tries.
But about that soccer squad, trying to become the first to follow a World Cup title with gold at the subsequent Olympics. Wednesday’s flat effort came out of nowhere.
“I don’t think this team expects to lose games to begin with,” Coach Vlatko Andonovski said.
That’s the standard American women have established at the Olympics. One evening in an empty stadium two days before the Games officially begin doesn’t alter that. It only reminds how robust and reliable they have been for decades.