As women shine in Games, young dreams are ignited

Participation: With ever more role models thanks to gender equity initiatives, girls worldwide are encouraged to pursue their passions.

Athens Olympics 2004

August 26, 2004|By Randy Harvey | Randy Harvey,SUN STAFF

ATHENS - As a girl playing youth soccer in New Brunswick, N.J., Heather O'Reilly had a poster of Mia Hamm on her bedroom wall. On Monday night on the island of Crete, O'Reilly, 19, scored the winning goal in overtime after receiving a crossing pass from Hamm, 32, as the U.S. women's Olympic soccer team beat Germany, 2-1, to earn a berth in tonight's gold-medal match against Brazil.

For soccer aficionados, the pass was important because of its impact on the game. For supporters of women's sports in the United States, it was even more significant as a symbolic passing of the torch from one generation of highly regarded athletes to another.

"It wasn't that long ago that girls had no women in sports to look up to," Athena Yiamouyiannis, president of the National Association for Girls and Women in Sport, said this week in a telephone interview. "If they had a poster on their wall, it might have been of Michael Jordan. Today, they have female role models."

The theme of the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta became "The Year of the Women" after the United States won team gold medals in women's basketball and gymnastics and two sports on the program for the first time, soccer and softball.

That was the beginning of a trend. For American female Olympians, this has become "The Decade of the Women."

They successfully defended their basketball and softball titles and finished second in soccer four years later in Sydney. Here, besides advancing to the soccer final, they earned a berth in the basketball semifinals with a victory yesterday over Greece. They have won the gold medal in softball and a silver in team gymnastics.

They so overwhelmed their softball opposition, allowing one run in nine games, that some International Olympic Committee members believe the sport should be eliminated from the Summer Games after 2008 because the United States is too dominant.

Women's sports advocates point to the passage of Title IX in 1972 as the most important factor in creating increased opportunities for girls and women in sports, which they conclude has led to greater success internationally. Title IX is the federal law that prohibits sex discrimination in educational programs and activities, including sports, at educational institutions that receive federal funds.

According to figures supplied by the National Association for Girls and Women in Sport, colleges offered an average of a little more than two sports for women in 1972. Today, colleges offer an average of 8.32 sports for women. In the past four years, 631 women's teams have been added nationwide.

"I think everyone would agree that this is an outgrowth of the law," Yiamouyiannis said. "I wouldn't say that the opportunities are endless, but they are increasing every year."

The same could be said for international sports. In 1922, the Federation Sportive Feminine Internationale sponsored the first Women's World Games because the IOC offered so few sports for women in the Olympics. Today, the only one of the 28 sports that does not have a women's competition is boxing. Besides soccer and softball, the IOC has added women's weightlifting and wrestling.

There is resistance even in the United States to women's participation in some of those sports. The father of U.S. wrestler Patricia Miranda threatened to sue her high school to keep her off the boys team - there was no girls team - but relented after making a deal with her that she would bring home stellar report cards. He was a proud father here when she won a bronze medal. She also graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Stanford University and is about to enter Yale law school.

Between Atlanta and Sydney, the number of female athletes in the Olympics increased from 3,624 to 4,254. IOC officials haven't released a figure for the number of women competing here, but they estimate that 40 percent of the 10,500 athletes in Athens are women.

The U.S. Olympic team is almost equally divided - 278 men and 260 women. Other countries are less committed to gender equity. Five countries here, all from the Muslim world, have no female athletes. But even that number is an improvement over Atlanta, where 26 countries didn't have female athletes, and Sydney, where nine didn't.

Afghanistan, which had never sent a woman to the Olympics, has two here. They were sponsored by a French group, Atlanta-Sydney-Athens Plus, which won support from Afghanistan's government.

Anita DeFrantz of Los Angeles, chairwoman of the International Olympic Committee's Women and Sport Commission, said the inclusion of more women in the Games is the Olympic movement's most significant achievement since 1976, when she competed in rowing.

"We had a no-discrimination clause in the IOC charter in 1996," she said. "But we've taken it farther since then to include that women and men should be equally represented. It was significant that we put that in writing as a mandate of the IOC.

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