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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.

ATLANTA — 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.

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"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.

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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.

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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."

Donna Lopiano, who was brought in four years ago to run the Women's Sports Foundation after serving 17 years as director of women's athletics at the University of Texas, doesn't believe that discrimination toward female athletes exists solely in foreign countries. While she is proud of what American women have accomplished on the world's athletic stage, Lopiano also is concerned about what she and others see as a bias among the national governing bodies of various sports in the United States.

Calling it "the next battleground," Lopiano said that the Amateur Sports Act of 1978 is badly in need of revision. In its original version, national governing bodies were mandated to put the same money into women's sports as they put into men's sports, based on the proportion of athletes in each. That has not happened. Though there are a few exceptions, most notably in gymnastics and swimming, the funds for women's teams usually fall far short.

"The NGBs haven't stepped up," said Lopiano, a former volleyball coach at Brooklyn College. "And nobody is looking over their shoulder. It's a classic case of the fox guarding the henhouse. Most NGBs are really dicey with athletes' rights. They're taking advantage of a lot of these kids."

Lopiano is alluding to a situation that developed this year with both the women's soccer and softball teams. After their respective governing bodies signed exclusive contracts with athletic gear companies, the women on those teams were ordered to agree to use only the equipment provided by the companies. On top of that, the athletes were told that they couldn't wear any other athletic gear in public, for fear that their pictures would be taken and used by a rival manufacturer.

But what really bothered Lopiano was that the deal went through the end of the year, more than four months after the Olympics will be over. "They were saying we own you until Dec. 31st," said Lopiano. The women's soccer team negotiated a new deal, but the women's softball team remains under the same contract. Both are expected to make a strong run at gold medals.

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Mia Hamm, a women's soccer player from Burke, Va., and a former star at the University of North Carolina, is in a position similar to Lieberman-Cline's two decades ago. But with a slight difference. Though happy for the opportunity to play in the Olympics, Hamm still is aware of the financial possibilities looming in the near future. She already has done a commercial along with other members of the team, as have women's basketball stars Lisa Leslie, Sheryl Swoopes and Dawn Staley.

"This is just another opportunity for the girls coming up to see what they can do," said Hamm. "They have something to look forward to and someone to cheer for. That's a positive for soccer or any other sport."

Women's soccer was added as an Olympic sport for these Games. Robin Goad has won two world championships in weightlifting, but she won't be going to Atlanta because it isn't an Olympic sport for women. Neither is women's water polo. The other part of that equation is that there are a lot of men's softball players who are similarly upset.

"I am the only American to set a world record in this sport in over 20 years and because I am female, I will be denied the opportunity to lift," Goad said. "I don't want to sound like an angry young female, but it is time for things to be happening on this side."

NBC, which is televising the Olympics, is expected to devote a substantial portion of its 171 hours of coverage to women's sports. Though the move is strictly a way of attracting a larger audience, Lopiano said, "It is also a matter of them playing to their pocketbooks."

Still, an example of what Lopiano calls "a good-old-boy mentality" that remains from the days when the networks virtually ignored the women at the Olympics can be found in the way NBC plans to televise the women's basketball team: With the exception of their first game, the U.S. women's games before the medal round will be shown on tape delay at 12: 30 a.m. for the East Coast.

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There will be plenty of good stories among the American women athletes in Atlanta: Torrence trying to win gold in the 100-yard dash after finishing fourth in Barcelona; 14-year-old gymnast Dominique Moceanu coming back from missing the Olympic trials with a stress fracture and attempting to duplicate Mary Lou Retton's performance in 1984; swimmer Amanda Beard hoping to become the next Janet Evans, and Evans hoping to recapture her past.

More poignant, perhaps, are the stories of the foreign women who haven't had the same support systems. Some, like marathoner Uta Pippig of Germany and Maria Mutola of Mozambique, now live and train full-time in the United States. And as much progress as women athletes have made in the Olympics, as much as these Olympics will be the launching pad for many professional careers, those involved in the process see as just the beginning.

"If you look at men's sports, many of them are at the peak," said Lieberman-Cline. "How much better will you get in basketball than a Michael Jordan, or a Hakeem Olajuwon, or in track than a Michael Johnson? One day, people will be laughing and saying, 'Remember when women couldn't dunk in the Olympics?' We haven't gotten close to the top of the mountain."

But at least they can see the mountain, and seem poised to begin their climb.

Countdown

Days until opening ceremonies: 2

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Hyde on team: Brian Hyde, who finished in fifth place at the 1,500-meter race at the U.S. trials last month, was added to the track and field team when two of the competitors ahead of him failed to reach the Olympic standard time of 3 minutes, 38 seconds.

Survey says: Most American shoppers say they are not lured by an Olympic tie-in, according to an Associated Press poll. Only 10 percent say they are more inclined to use products of companies that advertise themselves as proud sponsors of the U.S. Olympic team. Three percent are less inclined, and 86 percent say sponsorship makes no difference.

Pub Date: 7/17/96

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