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Circle complete, women are now at the center

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Which athlete is headlining the U.S. team and making the most magazine covers leading up to the 2000 Summer Olympics? Marion Jones, a women's track star angling to win five gold medals.

Which American team is a lock to get the most air time from Sydney? The women's gymnastics team, which qualified for the Games in the only U.S. Olympic trials shown in prime time on NBC.

Who does NBC expect to make up the majority of the audience for its Olympic broadcasts?

Women.

Need we continue?

The Olympics obviously aren't by, for and about just women, but there's no doubt the event's genetic coding has undergone a profound transformation in recent years.

What once was a male-dominated bastion of high-testosterone sports, such as boxing, track and basketball, has morphed into, well, almost a girl thing.

There's no denying the surging prominence of women in all aspects of the Games, from the competitions themselves to the makeup of the television viewing audience.

That was never more evident than during the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta, where the U.S. women's gymnastics, basketball, soccer and softball teams played to full houses, won gold medals and made headlines while the Dream Team men's basketball squad put everyone to sleep and boxing, once a prime-time staple, was blown off the radar screen.

It's all due to a worldwide mishmash of factors including the women's movement, Title IX in this country and a general opening of formerly closed minds, as well as the International Olympic Committee's profit-driven decision to open up the Games to professionals and less traditional sports, such as synchronized swimming and rhythmic gymnastics.

Perhaps the most critical factor in this country was ABC's decision, made years ago, to tailor the TV broadcasts to the stories of the athletes as much as the competitions themselves.

NBC's 2000 Olympic audience will be "much more like the audience that watches 'ER' than the audience that watched a baseball game on Saturday afternoon," said David Neal, NBC's Olympics coordinating producer.

In other words, count on the U.S. women's softball team getting a lot more air time than the men's baseball team. Same with the women's soccer team, which is a whole lot more famous than its male brother.

Not that it all means the Games have become some unwavering triumph of gender equity, mind you. There are still numerous examples of the blatant sexism that has marked the long chronicle of Olympic history.

The longest men's swimming event is almost twice the length of the longest women's event. Female race walkers and mountain bikers also won't get to test themselves in the longer races that their male counterparts get to run.

Such outdated concessions to the supposed frailty of females are the last vestiges of the old-fashioned discrimination that started when French aristocrat Baron Pierre de Coubertin revived the Games 104 years ago.

Women couldn't even compete in the first modern Olympics because the baron believed it was "indecent that spectators should be exposed to the risk of seeing the body of a woman smashed before their very eyes."

The baron soon relented, but Olympic opportunities were so scarce that women even set up their own short-lived Games starting in 1922.

The IOC has consistently made life difficult for women, only grudgingly adding such sports as gymnastics (1952) and basketball (1976) and contributing to the "he-male" stereotype by demanding that women submit to gender testing.

Given that tradition of male supremacy, the controversy over U.S. swimmer Jenny Thompson's recent decision to pose topless in Sports Illustrated, with her hands covering her breasts, is almost humorous.

Critics complain that the picture sends the message that women still can achieve empowerment only through sexuality. Alas, there's probably some truth to that, as the leering treatment the male sports world gives tennis player Anna Kournikova illustrates.

But there's another side to the issue. Thompson is a walking, talking prototype of the women's athlete who has broken down the doors of the Olympic "men's club" to gain worldwide credibility. She's bold, fit and self-assured, and she's not about to capitulate to the limits and stereotypes male observers have traditionally put on female athletes.

Empowerment? She achieved it in the pool, not in some picture.

If Baron de Coubertin were still alive, he would choke on his morning cup of coffee.

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