Women strive for equal play Olympics: The Games are expected to launch numerous American careers, and be a catalyst for women's progress in other countries.

July 17, 1996|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

ATLANTA -- As with most female athletes of her generation, Nancy Lieberman-Cline didn't think much about being part of a cause while she was competing. As a high school senior and the youngest player, male or female, ever to play basketball for the United States in the Olympic Games, she was too busy helping her team win a silver medal in Montreal 20 years ago.

But now Lieberman-Cline thinks about it a lot.

"You never know what impact you're going to have," Lieberman-Cline said. "But you see it now because of the money being directed into women's sports. I'm thrilled to have been a part of it."

What Lieberman-Cline was a part of could be considered the ultimate grass-roots sports program. It began in 1972, when a piece of legislation called Title IX changed the athletic landscape of this country forever with a mandate for females to get the same opportunity as males in amateur sports. The byproduct of that landmark event will be in evidence over the next three weeks as the 1996 Olympic Games are played out in Atlanta.

The numbers are staggering: When the opening ceremonies are held at Olympic Stadium on Friday night, female athletes will gather in force as never before in the first century of this quadrennial competition. Of the estimated 10,800 athletes expected to compete, 3,800 will be women. The figure is even more impressive when you consider that several Muslim countries still don't allow women to compete in sports events where men are present.

This has been called the Women's Olympics, in particular for American women, who make up 43 percent of a delegation totaling 675 athletes. Aside from the anticipation surrounding the performances in individual sports such as swimming and track and field, team sports such as softball and soccer have been added to the Olympic schedule. There are also more female coaches than ever before, including two, Martha Karolyi and Mary Lee Tracy, coaching the U.S. women's gymnastics team for the first time in history.

And, for the first time, the U.S. women's basketball team is made up almost exclusively of players who have been together for nearly a year while each is being paid $50,000 a year by USA Basketball, the sport's governing body. It's barely a fraction of what their male counterparts on this year's Dream Team earn in the NBA, but the message speaks volumes about the potential.

"If you're a little girl watching the Olympics, this could be your job one day," said Lieberman-Cline, who, at age 38 and the mother of a 2-year-old son, is contemplating a comeback in the new, NBA-sponsored women's professional league starting this fall.

The Olympics has become a lucrative profession for many, from sprinter Gwen Torrence to beach volleyball player Holly McPeak. It could become a profession for others, particularly if the proposed U.S. leagues in soccer, softball and basketball get off the ground. Atlanta also could be the catalyst for countries still lagging behind to follow the standard set by the United States and other nations with progressive attitudes toward women's sports.

Not that it has been easy, or that the struggle is over -- even in America. When the modern Olympic Games were first held in Athens, Greece, in 1896, no women were allowed to compete. After six women collapsed while running the 800 meters at the 1928 Olympics in Amsterdam, the race was abandoned. It wasn't until the 1960 Olympics in Rome that women were allowed to run a distance longer than 200 meters. In 1984, the first women's marathon was held. This year, for the first time, women will run 5,000 meters.

"You plant the seed 25 years ago and this is what grows," said former Olympic swimming champion Donna de Varona, who competed in the 1960 Olympics and won two gold medals at the 1964 Summer Games in Tokyo.

What has also grown along with the number of female Olympians are organizations championing their cause. De Varona, along with tennis star Billie Jean King, founded the Women's Sports Foundation in 1974. Four years ago, Atlanta Plus was formed by three European women after they watched the opening ceremonies in Barcelona and were dismayed to see 35 countries without any female competitors.

Pointing out that the International Olympic Committee's charter is supposed to exclude any country that practices discrimination for gender or race, French human rights lawyer Linda Weil-Curiel recently told the Independent Newspaper of London, "We are saying that countries who exclude themselves from the Olympic Charter exclude themselves from the Olympic movement, and it is for the IOC to be strong enough to say so."

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