LONDON — The defining picture of the Games of the XXX Olympiad — at least for the American side — was beach volleyball player Kerri Walsh adorned with the Stars and Stripes with a son in each arm waiting to collect her third gold medal on the spot where Henry VII held jousts for men only.
On the field, in the pool, on the track, on the road, on the court, on the mat, on the piste, in the ring, on the floor, on the water, on the grass, in the sand, Uncle Sam’s bemedaled nieces turned these into the “Girl Games.” Going into Sunday’s finale, the American females had won more gold medals (29) than the entire Russian and British teams. If they were their own country, their 58 medals would put them fourth in the overall standings, ahead of Germany.
Not to mention nearly twice as many golds as the US males, who didn’t come anywhere near their total of 53 from Beijing, while the women were exceeding the 53 they’d won there. While the Yanks topped the overall medal count for the fifth straight Games and reclaimed the gold standard from the Chinese, they wouldn’t have done it without the women’s motherlode.
For the first time there were more women (269) than men (261) on the US squad, which had no females when the 1908 Games were held here and only 38 when the Olympics returned in 1948. This time both the delegation chief (four-time basketball gold medalist Teresa Edwards) and the flagbearer in the Opening Ceremonies (two-time fencing champion Mariel Zagunis) were women.
These weren’t only the Girl Games for the Americans, but also for the planet. For the first time since the Olympics were revived in 1896, every nation — 205 in all — sent female athletes and for the first time every sport included events for women. And while Saudi teenager Sarah Attar may have finished well up the track in the 800 meters and been required to wear an Islam-approved uniform and walk at the back of the delegation in the Opening Ceremonies, it was significant that she was here at all, given the kingdom’s medieval attitude toward female athletes.
For half of the top 12 nations on the table, women have carried the medal count. They’ve won 49 of China’s 87, 43 of Russia’s 78, and 20 of Australia’s 35. And when the hosts were starved for gold after four days of lesser metal, it was the women’s pair of Helen Glover and Heather Stanning delivering on the rowing course.
What made an enormous difference for the Americans was the enduring power of gender equity in development and funding. “Title IX gave us a head start,” said US Olympic Committee executive director Scott Blackmun. On the 40th anniversary of the landmark federal law, the US women have won medals in 20 sports, including all of the combatives — boxing, judo, taekwondo, wrestling — that up until recently were deemed unladylike. Kayla Harrison won the first American judo gold medal for either gender, while Michigan boxer Claressa Shields, a teenager, claimed one gold medal more than the entire men’s squad, which left empty-handed for the first time ever.
Except for swimmer Michael Phelps, whose 22 career medals set the Olympic record for any athlete, the faces of these Games came with pierced ears — gymnast Gabby Douglas, swimmer Missy Franklin, Walsh and partner Misty May-Treanor, tennis player Serena Williams, sprinter Carmelita Jeter, soccer player Carli Lloyd. Many of the US women emerged from collegiate programs, where they’d been recruited athletes on full scholarships.
So it was no accident that the women’s basketball team won its fifth straight gold medal or the soccer team its third or that the water polo and volleyball teams earned gold and silver. In rowing, the sport that may have benefited the most from Title IX, the women’s eight has ruled the world for seven years. “Yeah! That is an American dynasty, baby,” Susan Francia declared after she and her seatmates had gone wire-to-wire to defend their Olympic crown.
The varsity pipeline continues to pump out champions as does the gymnastics club system, which has produced three consecutive Olympic all-around titlists and, for the first time, the team gold. It was telling that nobody from the Class of 2008, which won eight medals, made this squad and it’s more than likely that nobody from this group will be in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. Team coordinator Martha Karolyi can tell you about the corps of 12-year-olds who already are chalking up to be the next Gabby, even if that means beating her at the trials.
What is most significant about the performance of the US females here is that the doping lab so far has found them faultless. When the East Germans and Chinese were dominating, the link between the pharmacy and the podium was undeniable. If the Americans are artificially enhanced, they’ve been clever enough to escape detection. Their medal upsurge since 1972 has been both gradual and explainable.
Winning medals inspires the next generation to do the same. After making the podium at the last three Games, the US women’s water polo claimed gold this time with three players who were in elementary school when the sport was added to the Olympic menu in 2000. “More girls playing at a younger age,” said Brenda Villa, who earned a scholarship to Stanford after having to play on the boys’ team in high school.
While the Americans will finish close to their Beijing medal count of 110, the Chinese, who’ve become their archrivals in the wake of the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the disappearance of the German Democratic Republic, have experienced notable slippage. After winning 100 medals at home, 51 of them gold, China is at 87 and 38 here. Once the Middle Kingdom had staged the Games, the golden imperative faded.
What has kept the Americans atop the table for five Olympiads is continuity based on production. The corporate types at USOC headquarters in Colorado Springs were talking here about “return on investment” and about directing funding toward sports likely to produce medalists. Which is why USA Boxing likely will be pressured to divert cash for the next quadrennium from the one-and-done men to its potential Million Dollar Babies.
What the USOC understands is what the socialist countries learned decades ago — the women get the same medals as the men. This time Walsh and her colleagues got more of them.
“To be able to say I’m a strong, confident young woman and an Olympic champion is amazing,” said Harrison, soon to be a Marblehead firefighter. “And I hope we have a million little girls inspired right now.”
John Powers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.