LONDON — Something remarkable is going on at this Olympics: Adult human males are now waiting in line for tickets to things they used to make fun of. Female athletes such as boxer Claressa Shields and soccer striker Abby Wambach, women with biceps bigger than your brother’s, are being treated as creatures of worth and even beauty. Apparently, strong is the new pretty.
Before you say it doesn’t matter who or what is pretty, stop. In fact, it matters hugely, and it especially matters to sponsors. Guys are unembarrassable about this. The female athletes in the London Games don’t need the approval of men, but they most certainly need their money.
If the trend continues, American women will win twice as many medals as men in London. When you think about their performances here, they are conspicuous not just for how many podiums they are taking, but for how viscerally, hugely, physically powerfully they are doing so before roaring audiences. The London Games are clearly a point of departure: This is the last time anyone will ever — hopefully ever — tell a young girl, “That’s not for you. Find something else to do.”
You’d like to say we passed that juncture a long time ago, but actually we didn’t. Not until just now.
On Thursday night, a sold-out crowd of 80,000 will fill Wembley Stadium for the gold medal soccer match between the United States and Japan, the biggest audience ever to watch a women’s match in a country that regularly slurs and ignores the she-version of the sport. One of the most popular and awe-inspiring boxers here is Irishwoman Katie Taylor, the four-time lightweight world champion who was the flag bearer for her country. The only way to stop Taylor, according to one of her defeated opponents, Britishwoman Natasha Jones, is to “maybe drive a bus into her.”
Britain’s much-awaited first gold medal came not from a man but from a pair of rope-armed female rowers, Helen Glover and Heather Stanning, the latter a captain in the Royal Artillery. All of Australia celebrated when Sally Pearson “rescued” them from their worst Olympics in decades by winning gold in the 100-meter hurdles.
Those magnificent three-time gold medalist beach volleyballers Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings should also get medals for fortitude and sufferance of fools all these years. All the chatter about what they wear became just that: irrelevant chatter in the face of their accomplishment. So what if the audience came to see their splendid physiques? We won’t debate again whether their pursuit was Olympic-worthy. Ever run in the sand? Try doing it at a full sprint and then hitting your knees, skidding just under the net to retrieve a ball and then finding the coordination to gently touch it back over into open court for a winner.
“Sometimes it’s just the beer and the bikinis that get people to come and watch, but it’s the competition that’s keeping them there,” Walsh Jennings said prior to the Opening Ceremonies.
The public fixation on bikinis, which so dominated the sport from Atlanta to Athens to Beijing, finally ebbed in favor of admiration.
“Nobody ever really asks us about our suits anymore,” May-Treanor said last week. “I think that’s because they are realizing how much hard work goes into it, the athleticism of the sport itself. They’re just used to it. So it has moved past that point.”
Anyone who still had questions could meet her in the gym.
“If they want to arm wrestle, I’ll get clothed and we can go lift weights in the weight room,” she said.
Pound for pound, has there been a stronger performer than all-around gymnastics champion Gabby Douglas? Douglas is 4 feet 11 and weighs about 94 pounds. “All muscle, though,” her mother, Natalie Hawkins, said at a pre-Olympic event in May. When Douglas went to get a pre-event physical, according to her mother, the doctor couldn’t believe her abdominals. The nurse said, “Oh, my God. It’s like steel.” The doctor said, “Never in all my medical career have I seen this much muscle on a tiny person.”
“She has muscles in her face,” her mother said.
It’s entirely possible that Shields, a 17-year-old middleweight from Flint, Mich., will become another darling of the audiences by the end of the Games. She is the only one of the 12-member American boxing team to have a shot at a gold; all nine men were eliminated, stunningly, a first for the winningest team in Olympic history. Women’s boxing is debuting in these Games, and Shields has displayed hand speed, a devastating right, and glittering personality. She regularly spars with men because “most women can’t handle me,” she says.
What explains this overwhelming trend? It probably has to do with a wave breaking. The wave began to form in 1976, when women’s basketball was first included in the Olympics. It built in 1984, when it was finally decided that women wouldn’t get the torpors or the vapors from running a marathon. But as late as 1996, it was still just a large swell — 26 nations that year sent male-only teams to the Olympics.
At last, most athletic federations seem to have chosen success over the pathetic trope that female athleticism comes at the expense of men. Not that the battle is over: Too many women still have to worry how they’re going to pay for the gas to get to the gym.
But there appears to be a growing mainstream appreciation of the fact that quite often at the Olympics, women are doing better work for less pay. What’s more, audiences find their passionate quests, their willingness to compete for relatively small but pure rewards, immensely appealing. With that in mind, it seems worth quoting the great heptathlon champion Jackie Joyner-Kersee, who put it best so many years ago.
“I don’t think being an athlete is unfeminine,” she said. “I think of it as a kind of grace.”
It also seems worth quoting the late, great Nora Ephron. “Don’t be the victim of your own life,” she said. “Be the heroine.”
For previous Sally Jenkins columns, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.
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