When the late tennis great Althea Gibson became the first African-American woman to win Wimbledon in 1957, she said in her biography, “Shaking hands with the Queen of England was a long way from being forced to sit in the colored section of the bus going into downtown Wilmington, North Carolina.” In many ways these London Olympics, which opened with the queen sitting in her box, were the grandest expression yet of female athletes vaulting, sprinting, and kicking their way to the front of the bus.
For the United States team, it was literally the Title IX Games, proof of the sinew and steel forged in women’s bodies 40 years after federal laws began prohibiting gender discrimination in educational programs receiving taxpayer dollars. American women accounted for nearly two-thirds of the gold medals won by the United States, with their 29 being the most of any women’s or men’s squad from any other country. There seemed no activity they did not challenge in, with golds in boxing, judo, gymnastics, soccer, beach volleyball, water polo, swimming, tennis, track and field, rowing, shooting, cycling, and basketball.
Babe Didrikson Zaharias, the pioneering athlete of more than a half-century ago, once declared, “It’s not just enough to swing at the ball. You’ve got to loosen your girdle and really let the ball have it.” The American women showed what happens when countries loosen their social girdles and let girls really have at it. After Tianna Madison, Carmelita Jeter, Bianca Knight, and Allyson Felix set a world record in the 4 x 100 relay, the gracious Jamaican track star Veronica Campbell-Brown said she was happy for the Americans, hoping their performance would “start to shed some light on us females.”
That light shined on women representing even the most restrictive governments. For Saudi Arabia, the two laps around the track run by Sarah Attar and the judo match of Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani were momentous events; the two were the first female competitors in their country’s history, as international pressure finally forced the kingdom to ease its restrictions on women athletes. Attar finished in last place in her 800-meter heat and Shahrkhani was defeated in 82 seconds, but they became instant pioneers, the Althea Gibsons and Babe Zahariases of their time.
They helped these Olympics be the first in which every country sent women athletes. Saudi women still face bracing social restrictions at home, and some clerics continued to complain loudly about women in competitive sports dishonoring Islamic law. But the websites of the English versions of Arab newspapers were full of praise and hope that this sports breakthrough abroad would be the beginning of gender equality at home.
Faisal Abbas, the editor-in-chief of Al Arabiya English, wrote, “It was virtually impossible for these two female Saudi athletes to bring home a gold medal, but there is nothing stopping the Saudi government from awarding them a medal of honor.” Somewhere, Zaharias and Gibson must be smiling. In these Olympics, women drove the bus.