By JULIE JAG
LONDON – As the United States and Japan women’s soccer teams prepared to square off Wednesday for the gold medal before an Olympic-record crowd of 80,205 vivacious, flag-waving fans, a familiar Beyonce tune thumped through at Wembley Stadium.
Who run the world? Girls!
The women aren’t just running the world at these Olympics, they’re jumping throwing, punching, swimming and kicking their way onto the podiums and into the spotlight.
For the first time in history, the United States sent more ladies than men to the Games, and the women have shown they’re not letting that opportunity go to waste. With one day left, they’ve collected 58 of the country’s 102 medals. In Athens in 2004, for comparison, the U.S. earned 101 medals, 39 of which came in women’s events. In Beijng 2008, the number was split.
“I’m thrilled to see how the women have done, thrilled to see how the United States has done. It’s amazing to be a part of something so much bigger than myself,” said judo champion Kayla Harrison. “To be able to say I’m a strong, confident young woman and an Olympic champion is amazing, and I hope we have a million little girls who are inspired right now.”
Harrison played a big part in elevating the medal count by winning the country’s first gold in judo. The 3-meter synchronized diving duo of Kelsey Bryant and Abby Johnston brought home the first medal in that event and Santa Clara native Hayley Anderson won the USA’s first marathon swimming medal. Both took silver.
Also for the first time, the U.S. nabbed two medals in the three weight classes of women’s boxing, which made its debut at these Games. Middleweight Claressa Shields took gold and flyweight Marlen Esparza snatched a bronze.
In addition to their success, athletes with a history of bringing home hardware pushed the envelope, especially the teams. Women’s water polo, for example, finally found gold after taking silver in 2000 and 2008 and bronze in 2004. The USA women’s volleyball team also notched a silver after losing to Brazil on Saturday. The women’s soccer team three-peated for gold, while the basketball team won its fifth Olympic championship.
“I play a team sport so easy to connect yourself with all the other female athletes, but I’m just proud to see everyone doing so well and I’m just proud to see USA as a whole is doing awesome,” said water polo player Brenda Villa, a Stanford graduate. “So, it’s not just the females. But does it give you a smile? It does.”
But girl power isn’t just the result, it’s also the catalyst.
Sanya Richards-Ross basically ran a victory lap in the anchor leg of the 4×400-meter final Saturday after her teammates gave her a behemoth padding over the field. It was her third gold medal in the event, but also the most dominant, something she attributes to a closer connection with her teammates.
“Everybody was kind of in their zone and I think it was rubbing off,” Richards-Ross said. “I think this was the most time I’ve spent with my teammates at a Games, and I think we encouraged each other a whole lot and I think that makes a big difference.”
Scott Blackmun, CEO of the United States Olympic Committee, said the outburst from the ladies is a product of Title IX.
“If you look at the U.S. medal performance over the last 10 to 20 years, a lot of the success we’ve had in comparison to other nations is our women. We’re very proud of that,” he said. “I think Title IX really gave us a head start because of our national commitment to make sure women were getting the opportunity to be involved in sports.
It’s something we’re proud of but I think the rest of the world has clearly gone the same way at this point, but we’re glad we got ahead of the curve.”
True, the U.S. isn’t the only country tapping into its female talent. China, which is second in the medal table with 87 total has gotten 49 of those from women. Russia, fourth on the table with 78, got a whopping 43 from its females.
On the opposite end of the scale stands the host country, Great Britain. While third on the medals table with 67, just 19 of those were won by women. Then again, after the other three countries were through, there weren’t many more to go around.
“Our success here kind of speaks for itself,” said 17-year-old swimmer Missy Franklin, who won four golds and a bronze in her Olympic debut in London. “We’re proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish not only as a women’s team but as the USA team.”
The question is, will what the women accomplished on the Olympic stage bleed over to life after the Games. The most recent incarnation of a women’s professional soccer league collapsed in 2010, the year Santa Clara team FC Gold Pride won the WPS title. Women’s professional basketball continues to draw a fraction of the crowds that turn up for the NBA and female cyclists get paid pennies on the dollar when compared to their male counterparts.
But Theresa Edwards, the USOC’s chef de mission for the London Games, said all that’s needed is a little time before girls start running the sports world outside of the Olympics.
“I just think that a lot of things take time,” Edwards said. “I think you just have to keep trying and working hard for it, but you can’t belittle the fact that we’ve come a long ways as women in sport and we enjoy doing what we do and we enjoy being the absolute possible best at what we do. And think personally we’ve got to keep doing that and allowing opportunity for young girls to come behind us and keep doing the same thing.”
Girl power gets U.S. to top of medal count
By JULIE JAG