Women dominating at London Olympics

The darkened arena pulsed with anticipation, the thousands of spectators roaring and their cameras flashing like giant fireflies as the boxers swaggered in, punching the air, bouncing on the balls of their feet and glaring like gladiators. And then, the chanting started for the favorite of this particular crowd:

"Katie!" "Katie!" "Katie!"

Despite the deafening cheers — officials at the ExCel Arena said it was one of loudest crowds of the Games so far at 113.7 decibels — you might also have heard a glass ceiling shattering: Boxing, the last Summer Olympics sport to be limited to men, opened its ranks to women for the first time here.

And women are making their mark on these Olympics in other ways: This is the first time that every country has at least one woman competing, courtesy of none too subtle pressure leveled on such holdouts as Saudi Arabia and Qatar. This is the first time the U.S. team has more women than men on it, 268 to 261, as does Canada's and Russia's.

Some of the gender imbalance of the U.S. team is due to the absence of a men's soccer team, which failed to qualify for these Games. But the numbers alone don't tell the whole story.

Many of the stars who have emerged from these Games so far are women: Gabby Douglas, the spritely gymnast who became the first African-American to win the all-around gold medal, and Missy Franklin, the 17-year-old phenom who goes back to high school with four gold medals and one bronze, just to name two. You can add gymnast Aly Raisman, who won a team gold with Douglas, an individual gold in the floor exercise and bronze on the balance beam. Some American women just continue to thrive in the Olympics: Serena Williams, for example, won the tennis singles and teamed with sister Venus to win their third doubles gold. Shooter Kim Rhode won a medal in her fifth straight Games.

Maryland athletes have also shined at these Games. Angel McCoughtry (St. Frances) has given the U.S. women's basketball team a big lift off the bench as it has steamrolled opposing teams since the start of the tournament. Swimmer Allison Schmitt, who trains at North Baltimore Aquatic Club with Michael Phelps, won five medals, including three golds. Katie Ledecky, 15, of Bethesda, the youngest member of the U.S. swim team, took gold in the 800-meter freestyle.

The home team, Great Britain, is also enjoying a surge of female success: In Atlanta in 1996, only one British woman won a medal; as of Monday, they had 14, including heptathlete Jessica Ennis' gold medal.

But don't ask Anita L. DeFrantz if women are coming into their own with these Olympics. Perhaps, says the bronze-medalist American rower and member of the International Olympic Committee, it's the other way around.

"Maybe it's the Olympic movement that came into its own this year," said DeFrantz, captain of the 1976 U.S. rowing team.

DeFrantz, who chairs the IOC's Committee on Women and Sports, and was instrumental in getting women's soccer and softball added to the 1996 Atlanta Games, said that the Olympics were always based on the ideals of "fair play and respect," which can only be achieved with gender parity. She is most proud of the fact that no country arrived here without a female athlete.

"Now every child in every country can say," she said, "'we have women in the Olympics.'"

In some respects it was only a matter of time before women had more of a share of the Games. The quadrennial event tended to be the one time that female athletes tended to get the kind of attention that their male counterparts get year-round. Much of that is because of the popularity of sports like gymnastics and figure skating, which despite requiring athleticism were considered girly, given the music and glittery costumes and make-up involved. What has changed over the years is the emergence of more women in sports that don't involve such trappings.

March to the medal stand

Swimming, which on Saturday concluded its competition, has always had its female stars, but this year, American women had a particularly successful Olympics: Women won half of the 16 U.S. gold medals in the sport, compared to the two they won in Beijing and three in Athens. In London so far, the top medalist, as always, is Phelps with six. With five though, are his teammate, Ryan Lochte, and two women, Franklin and Schmitt.

During their competition, the female swimmers repeatedly credited their successes to how tight-knit their team was, and credited their coach, Teri McKeever, the first woman to coach a U.S. Olympic swim team. McKeever, who has a gentle, thoughtful demeanor, speaks openly of how women are different and need to be coached differently, almost as if she's taken the Carol Gilligan school of "difference feminism" from the ivory tower to the pool.

"Women are motivated by relationships and a sense of belonging," she said. "I hope what I've done is create a space for them to be women."

Indeed, on the final day of competition, the U.S. women who broke a world record winning gold the 4x100 medley relay were a tangle of long limbs and hugs as they awaited the traditional post-medal press conference.

There were three seats for four of them, so Schmitt pulled Dana Vollmer on her lap, and couldn't stop hugging her in delight, like a particularly cute baby she had been given to hold. Franklin joined in for the group jumble, and Rebecca Soni might have as well had they not had to separate to enter the media room. At the press conference, Vollmer in particular noted how different this team was from others she had been on, and how McKeever had created an atmosphere where they were free to talk about feelings and fears, not the usual locker room talk.

"I remember having coaches in the past come up to me before races and they're like, 'You can get the world record, you have to have the perfect turn,'" Vollmer said, mimicking a staccato pep talk. "I'd get so stressed out. Having Teri come out and just be like, 'You've done the work, you're ready to do this, just go out and have fun.' There's definitely something to be learned from that."

The proof is golden: Vollmer won all three of her races, setting a world record in her individual event, the 100-meter butterfly, and being part of the 4x200-meter freestyle relay that set an Olympic record and the 4X100 medley relay that set a world record.

Women boxers thrill

This week, women's boxing has been drawing huge crowds to the ExCel Arena, exciting the fighters who compete in the last Summer Games sport that until now had been limited to men.

"I think we're shocking the world this week," said Katie Taylor, the Irish boxer whose fight, against a Brit no less, electrified the arena as fans from her country waved orange-white-and-green flags, chanted "Katie!" and sang the "Ole, Ole, Ole" song more typically heard at football games. "I think people really opened their eyes to women's boxing this week."

With her boxing-mad country behind her, Taylor, fighting in the lightweight category, is Ireland's best hope for gold in these Games.

"It helps that our greatest athlete in Ireland is the greatest in the world," said Jasmine Elkhershi, 30, who with her sister, Erica, 24, both in Irish-green outfits, cheered the world champion boxer as she beat Natasha Jonas of Great Britain. "I love boxing personally, it doesn't matter if it's a man or a woman."

The sisters say they think it took time for people to accept women as boxers.

"I think people are just a bit..." Erica began.

"...Nervous," Jasmine picked up. "It's not lady-like."

Like Taylor, American Claressa Shields, competing in the middleweight category, is assured of at least a bronze after Monday's quarterfinals. For the 17-year-old Flint, Mich., native, who grew up playing football with the boys, making it to the Olympics is a triumph, for herself and her sport.

She remembers her father telling her that Muhammed Ali's daughter, Laila, followed in his boxing footsteps, but he wouldn't let Shields fight. "He said no, boxing is a man's sport," she said. After she asked again, and he said no again, she did what might be viewed as quite the girly thing: "I started crying," Shields said.

Eventually, she made her way to a boxing gym, and her father couldn't be prouder. He tries to inspire her, by telling her to remember when another girl took her bike, or her hamburger at McDonald's, and to think of her opponent as that girl. But, Shields said, neither actually happened.

"Nobody took nothing from me," said Shields, who on Wednesday will compete for a spot in Thursday's gold-medal bout. Flyweight Marlen Esparza of Houston also continues into the semi-finals.

DeFrantz, the IOC member, was planning to duck out early from a meeting she had to catch some boxing. It was quite change from her day: She remembers how female athletes were housed in a separate village, she said, which made her feel disconnected from the majority of her teammates, the men. And, while she considers hers "the noblest sport," she recalls when women rowed half the distance than men did.

Now, she hopes that women will take advantage of getting their foot in the door, and push to gain seats on the federations and governing committees that have decision-making powers.

"You need all of humanity to come to a good decision," she said.

In the arenas and stadiums, the pools and tracks of these Olympics, there are fans who are happy to see the playing field leveling, even as they ultimately just want to see good competition, regardless of gender.

"This year, women are very much on par with men," observed Sinead Cronin, 28, who with her brother Jerry Cronin, 31, took in two days of women's boxing. "A great athlete is a great athlete. A win is a win.



By the numbers

4,688 — Female athletes competing in London

268 — Number of U.S. women

15 — Age of Katie Ledecky of Bethesda, youngest member of U.S. Olympic team

12 — Career medals of U.S. swimmer Natalie Coughlin, who won bronze in the 400 free relay, tying the U.S career record of swimmers Jenny Thompson and Dara Torres.

5 — Medals won by swimmers Missy Franklin (4 golds, 1 bronze) and Allison Schmitt (3 golds, 1 silver, 1 bronze)

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