Women have come long way BARCELONA '92

July 26, 1992|By KEN ROSENTHAL

BARCELONA SPAIN — BARCELONA, Spain -- Magic Johnson would have been a more dramatic choice, but the selection of Francie Larrieu Smith as the American flag bearer in last night's Olympic opening ceremonies carried a powerful symbolic meaning.

While Johnson stands as a beacon of hope in the fight against AIDS, Larrieu Smith reflects the advances made by women athletes in the last half-century, a message less urgent, but no less historic.

Flash back to 1948, when Fanny Blankers-Koen of the Netherlands was publicly criticized for competing in the Olympics as a 30-year-old mother of two. Never mind that Blankers-Koen won four gold medals. She was supposed to be at home.

Larrieu Smith isn't a mother, just a 39-year-old marathoner and five-time Olympic team member. She shared her moment last night with a dizzying array of U.S. women athletes competing in the Games at ages when others once retired.

At 5 feet 4 and 105 pounds, Larrieu Smith was perhaps the smallest of the flag bearers representing a record 172 nations. But she led a contingent of about 600 U.S. athletes around Olympic Stadium on this warm and emotional night.

"In the 25 years of my athletic career, I didn't think there would be anything more special than making my first Olympic team," said Larrieu Smith, who made the team by finishing third in the marathon trials. "But this certainly has become more special because of this."

It's the year of the woman in politics, and the year of the woman in the Olympics, too. Larrieu Smith was chosen by representatives of the 25 American teams in Barcelona. They do such a fine job, maybe they should replace the electoral college.

Remember the 1988 flag bearer, Evelyn Ashford? She's now 35, and her daughter, Raina, is 7. No matter. Ashford is another five-time Olympic team member, running world-class times in the 100-meter --.

"We're at an era where woman are pursuing their dreams, and it has nothing to do with age," diver Mary Ellen Clark said. "Women are not afraid to go for the top in anything, whether it's in a corporation or in sports."

Clark, 29, is a waitress from Newton Square, Pa., who once sold discount knives in Columbus, Ohio. Her teammate, Ellen Owen, also is 29. She took five years off working for the Ford Motor Company in Seattle, and she too will be competing against teeny-boppers from China.

The list goes on: Basketball player Suzie McConnell, 26, started training for her second Olympics four months after giving birth to a son. Kayaker Cathy Marino, 35, won a bronze medal at the 1990 U.S. World Team Trials two months after giving birth to a son.

Another kayaker, Cathy Hearn of Garrett Park, Md., won her first world title in 1979, and is now 30. So is middle-distance runner PattiSue Plummer, and -- take a deep breath now -- defending heptathlon gold medalist Jackie Joyner-Kersee.

How is all this possible? Title IX dramatically increased funding for women's athletics, but the difference isn't just money. The difference mostly is in a society where women are demanding -- and finally gaining -- a fair shot.

Larrieu Smith might not see herself carrying the feminist banner, but if she can compete in the most grueling Olympic event four months short of her 40th birthday, what is there that a woman can't do?

Of all the U.S. women, her saga is easily the most compelling. She has never won an Olympic medal -- her best finish was fifth in the Seoul 10,000 -- but she set her first American record in 1969, and her most recent one in April 1991.

The amazing part is, Larrieu Smith was the dominant U.S. miler in the 1970s, yet increased her race distances as she got older. Of course, you can't run much farther than a marathon, so now she's talking about stopping her 90-mile-a-week training regimen and returning to track.

Who's to stop her?

Who's to stop any of them?

"The oldest person I train with is 17," Owen said "I got down to their level. They're a crack-up.

"They talk about malls and schools and dates. Sometimes, I steer them in the right direction. Sometimes, we chat about nothing. But right now, I don't feel that old."

Neither does Larrieu Smith.

"I'm not going to retire," she said defiantly. "There will be other races to win."

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