How women athletes made history at London Olympics



How women athletes made history at London OlympicsSwaminathan Pillai

The London Olympics 2012 will remain etched in human memory for several reasons. Despite some minor hiccups such as unsold tickets, the Games were very well organized. The most memorable part of the Games is the kind of success achieved by women participants. As we had reported earlier, this is the first Olympic Games in which all nations included women in their contingent. Some women athletes managed to capture everybody’s attention due to their fortitude coupled with true sporting spirits.

Missy Franklin, the most celebrated woman swimmer from the United States, said it was long and hard hours in the pool that made her the most-decorated woman of the London Olympics, with four gold medals and a bronze. Brenda Villa spent the last four Olympics winning medals with the US women`s water polo team, which won its first Gold here in London.

Brenda Villa says, “There are more young girls playing water polo. They grow up to want to be an Olympic water polo player. So awareness and just we`ve been more visible since, I guess, Beijing, so more girls playing at a younger age. I think that`s what`s helped in our case.”

The United States Olympic Committee says the American women`s medal count in London is due in part to Title 9, the 40-year-old federal law that prohibited gender discrimination in school sports.

Scott Blackmun, the US Olympics CEO, opines, “Title 9 really gave us a head start because of our really national commitment to make sure that young women in particular were getting the opportunity to be involved in sports. So it`s something that we`re proud of, but I think, you know, the rest of the world is clearly, you know, doing the same thing at this point. So we`re glad we got ahead of the curve.”

It is hard to even pick which performance by a woman stood out among the rest. Perhaps that`s because women were so dominant and prominent in these Games - both for their achievements on the track, pitch and pool, and for symbolic achievements.

The "women`s Games" began on the night of the opening ceremony when two women, modestly dressed and veiled, walked proudly alongside the flag of their nation, Saudi Arabia, into London`s Olympic stadium.

This understated entrance marked an extraordinary moment for the kingdom and for the Olympics itself, as the first occasion in the history of the Games when all countries participating had women athletes in their teams.

It was a momentous Olympics for US women as well. For the first time Americans sent more female athletes to the Games than men. While the US led all countries in Gold medals and the overall medal count, you can thank the US women for a large part of that. Two-thirds of the times you heard the US national anthem being played in London, it was because a female had earned the top spot in her event. And 60% of the total medals were nabbed by women. US females put on quite a show in their path to win Gold at almost every venue in London.

Missy Franklin, Dana Vollmer, Rebecca Soni and Allison Schmitt each nabbed Gold in their specialty in the pool. They later combined for a wonderful relay for their team. The women`s water polo team won for the first time at Olympics.

In gymnastics, the US women were up to the task and brought Gold back to the US for the first time since 1996. Gabby Douglas won the all-around title - the first time an African-American woman had done so. Aly Raisman won Gold in the floor routine, a first for the United States.

Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings again dominated the sport they have helped make popular by winning a third beach volleyball medal, a fitting end for a team whose members say they have played their last competitive Games together. The US women`s soccer team added another gold medal to its stash, taking its third straight medal by beating Japan 2-1 in a thrilling rematch of the World Cup final, where Japan took the crown. The women`s basketball team also won its fifth straight Gold, an unprecedented feat in the Olympics.

The female sprinters, who had racked up their own personal successes on the track with individual medals aplenty, combined to shatter the 4×100 meter relay record, which had stood for 27 years. For Sonya Richards-Ross and Allyson Felix, who were trying to erase disappointments from years past, there was no question they had risen to the occasion. And they joined two other teammates for an unbelievable performance by the US team, beating all others in the 4×400 meter relay by more than four seconds.

American women were not the only ones who won more medals than their male counterparts. The Chinese and Russian medal winners are also mostly women. The London Olympics were the first to feature women in every sport. But still, women did not compete in 30 events in those sports and there`s pressure for full gender equity.

Another memorable event of the London Olympics was the participation of Nur Suryani. The 29-year-old female shooter from Malaysia was eight months pregnant. Still she could win a medal.

It was a remarkable homecoming for one of Britain’s greatest champion performers. The story of Christine Ohuruogu is a splendidly thrilling one.

This time it was a 400 metres silver medal that she was celebrating after Sanya Richards-Ross, the American she beat into third place in Beijing in 2008, summoned enough strength to hold on to first place as Ohuruogu closed her down in the final strides.

But just to be on the podium was a stunning achievement for an athlete who has been ravaged by injury in recent years and who had looked a shadow of her old self until, with perfect timing, she had begun to show signs of a comeback this season.

Her uncanny ability to save her very best for the big occasion was once again proved as she clocked 49.70sec — only the third time she has ever broken the 50-sec barrier. The only other two occasions were when she won World Championship Gold in 2007 and Olympic Crown a year later.

Great Britain`s women have had their most successful Olympic Games since Atlanta 1996, winning 43 per cent of the total Gold awarded to Team GB at London 2012.

In Beijing, the women had won 37 per cent of the total Gold, while in Sydney they secured 27 per cent. In Atlanta, Britain`s sportswomen failed to secure a single Gold – although the men too had won only one.

In total, Team GB`s female competitors have secured 10 Golds, four Silvers and five Bronzes. They have also claimed two Golds and one Silver in mixed events.

Although Gold medal-winning heptathlete Jessica Ennis and Olympic keirin champion Victoria Pendleton have grabbed the headlines with their spectacular performances over the last week, the story of female success runs throughout Team GB.

In rowing, London 2012 saw the sport’s first British female Gold medal winners when Helen Glover and Heather Stanning crossed the line ahead of Australia in the women’s pair.

Great Britain enjoyed their most successful day at an Olympics in 104 years by winning six Golds on day eight of the London Games.

Jessica Ennis, Greg Rutherford and Mo Farah capped a historic day - the best ever for GB athletics - by winning the heptathlon, long jump and 10,000m in front of 80,000 jubilant spectators at the Olympic Stadium.

The rowers had started the celebrations with Gold in the men`s four and the women`s lightweight double sculls before the women`s team added track cycling Gold in the London Velodrome.

Saturday`s series of successes kept the host nation third in the medals table with 14 Golds, behind the United States and China. Britain has now won 29 medals overall, having also taken seven Silvers and eight Bronzes at these Games.

Ennis had dominated the heptathlon from the start, leading her rivals after the four events on day one. She then effectively clinched Gold with strong performances in the long jump and javelin on day two, before rounding off with victory in the 800m. Her time of two minutes 8.65 seconds meant she smashed her own British record for the heptathlon, finishing the seven-event competition with 6,955 points, 49 more than she scored in the Hypo Meeting in Austria in May.

"I am so shocked I can`t believe it," said Ennis. "I`m going to savour the moment. I`ve had great support, although I`ve been under a huge amount of pressure. It`s never going to get any better than this. It`s the best moment of my life.”

As the Games were about to kick off, there were a lot of concern about how ready Britain was to hold the Olympics. Could organizers fill the venues? Would people be safe? Would the opening ceremony even come close to the one in Beijing four years earlier?

It didn`t take long for the proud British people and athletes to put on a show that would quiet many of the early concerns. All in all, it has been a success all around. The London Games have been an unexpected triumph, Alastair Campbell, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair`s spokesman, wrote for CNN.com.

"In their own way, I think these Olympics could be one of the most significant events of our lifetime. They are changing the way British people think about themselves and about their country," Campbell wrote. "We have shown we can do big things well. We have shown we can succeed at anything we set our minds to. We have changed the way many overseas think about us."

Comedian Eddie Izzard couldn`t agree more. Some of the most memorable moments, such as when Great Britain`s long-distance running star Mo Farah won his two events, show the country has become a proud, multicultural, truly United Kingdom, he wrote in a column on CNN.com.

It`s been a long road for Britain. The organizers have transformed a neighbourhood and pulled off the Games without a major hitch. And in the eyes of many people, Britain has done the world proud.

"Hosting the Olympics has also united people from all corners of the country," Izzard wrote. "Instead of seeing ourselves as English, Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish, we have felt British. Right from the moment of the opening ceremony, it has felt as if Britain suddenly had the confident voice it had been looking for since the height of the Industrial Revolution."

(The author is an academician and a freelance journalist)