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Stealing the show at Games


SYDNEY, Australia - Best athlete?

Marion Jones.

Best moment?

Cathy Freeman winning the 400 meters.

And the best game?

It had to be last night's "golden goal" drama for the women's soccer gold medal, when Norway stunned the reigning Olympic and World Cup champion United States, 3-2, in overtime.

Catch the drift? Again the Summer Olympics are being transformed into a showcase for the finest female athletes on the planet.

It's not just that women are overshadowing the men; they're on the brink of stealing the show, with new sports and new stars on the 100th anniversary of women's participation in the Olympics.

From pole vaulting to weightlifting, the triathlon to water polo, women are engaged in groundbreaking sports designed to bring parity to the Summer Games.

In Sydney, women account for 38.3 percent of the 11,084 athletes, participate in 44 percent of the sports and seemingly grab more than 50 percent of the headlines.

The big news is that all the Olympic attention focused on women is hardly even a surprise anymore. It's almost taken for granted, as a once-every-four-year summer showcase enters a new age.

As they left the field last night with silver medals around their necks, the women of the U.S. soccer team noted the great changes since 1996, when they won the gold medal in the sport's Olympic debut at the Atlanta Games.

Back then, playing in front of tens of thousands of flag-waving fans, the Americans became symbols of the remarkable advance of women on the playing field. Those were roles they shouldered through their World Cup triumph in 1999, when the United States was swept by soccer fever.

But at these Olympics, they were simply players.

"In 1996, we played to gain credibility for the sport," said Tiffeny Millbrett, who scored twice against Norway. "This year, 2000, was for us and our love of the game."

The terrific game they played against Norway was just that, as taut and tense as soccer gets, whether played by men or women. These were two teams, old rivals who have chased each other on playing fields worldwide, standing toe to toe until Dagney Mellgren's game-winning goal in the 102nd minute.

In one strike, sociology gave way to soccer.

"It's a good statement for women and a good statement for Team USA," Millbrett said.

Nearly everywhere you look at Sydney, it's the women who are dominating the show.

On the night Maurice Greene claimed the gold medal in the men's 100 meters, the world's news media were riveted by another story, Jones' victory in her 100-meter race and the start of her drive for five gold medals.

Michael Johnson, the first man to win the 400 in two successive Olympics, was like a fighter on an undercard. The main event was the victory of Australian national hero, Freeman.

And a female athlete is at the center of the most perplexing and possibly heartbreaking Olympic drug scandal of recent times.

Romanian gymnast Andreea Raducan, a pint-sized 16-year-old, was forced to give up her gold medal in the women's gymnastics all-around because she took a cold medicine with a banned stimulant, which was prescribed by the Romanian team doctor.

It's all a far cry from the first modern Games, which were open only to men. Two women took part in the 1900 Games.

The International Olympic Committee is determined to boost women's opportunities, with a goal of a 50-50 male-female split among sports in four years. And athletes are taking advantage of the opportunities. Without many professional leagues, without many other chances to shine on an athletic stage, the Olympics are a Super Bowl for women around the world.

The Olympic landscape is filled with women soaring in the pole vault, throwing the hammer, lifting weights and battling in the pool in water polo, pursuits that were once for men only. There's talk that women will be boxing and wrestling for medals in future Olympics.

"I can't imagine a sport that has been around for 100 years is finally having women weightlifting," said American Cheryl Haworth, who won a bronze medal in the heavyweight division.

Though nine countries don't send women athletes, others are touting the success of their female stars.

Japan celebrated the marathon triumph of Naoko Takahashi, who won the country's first track and field gold medal.

Vietnam's first medal, a silver in tae kwon do, was won by Tran Hieu Ngan.

Sri Lanka's Susanthika Jayasinghe finished third in last night's 200-meter dash behind Jones, and said, "I am very happy and very proud to have won for my country. It was our first medal in 52 years."

China's Fu Mingxia achieved a measure of Olympic immortality last night by claiming the fourth diving gold medal in a career in which she literally grew up before the eyes of the world.

The United States still leads the way among female athletes. But the gap is closing.

Just look at the American softball team, the 1996 Olympic champions, who were pushed to the brink in Sydney before coming back in the medal round and defeating Japan in the final.

"We all know how much the other teams have been training since 1996, and a lot of money has been spent on this sport," U.S. pitcher Lisa Fernandez said. "But I still didn't think we would struggle as much as we did."

Neither did the players on the U.S. women's soccer team. As women's sports grow around the world, the competition for medals is bound to get more difficult.

"I hate parity," said U.S. midfielder Julie Foudy. "Who wants parity?"

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