Editorial: U.S. women outpace men in Olympics
At the first modern Olympic Games in 1896, the French aristocrat most responsible for the revival of the games was quite clear in his views on female athletes: They were not welcome.
As Baron Pierre de Coubertin put it, their inclusion would be “impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic, and incorrect.”
More than 100 years later, women are not only Olympic stars, they are outpacing men.
When the London Games open on July 27, women will outnumber men on the United States Olympic team for the first time. Also for the first time this summer, every Olympic sport open to men also will be open to women, including boxing.
In London, the U.S. team will include 529 athletes: 268 women and 261 men.
Contrast this to the 1972 Summer Games, just after the United States passed Title IX, the landmark federal law that banned gender discrimination in public schools. At the Munich Games, only 21 percent of the athletes were women: 84 women competed alongside 316 men.
There is no question that the two events — the signing of Title IX into law on June 23, 1972, and the phenomenal growth in Olympic participation seen today — are intimately linked.
“You have this direct line between the passing of landmark federal legislation and its result 40 years later, which is women competing at the highest level of sports,” said Mary Jo Kane, a sociologist and director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at the University of Minnesota. “Women have always played sports — from Babe Didrikson Zaharias to Billie Jean King — but never had a critical mass of sports up and down the food chain. That happened because of Title IX.”
Title IX, which passed quietly 40 years ago as an amendment to a large education bill, wasn’t intended to affect sports. It was meant to level the playing field in the classroom and on campus. Despite that, its effect has been most visible in women’s and girls sports in part because the discrimination there was so overt — 10 sport options for college men and none for women, for example.
In the early 1970s, nearly 300,000 girls participated in high school varsity sports. That number is now more than 3 million. The number of women in college sports jumped from 30,000 to 191,000.
As these girls found more opportunities on local sports teams, they began turning up in the Olympics. One was Nancy Hogshead-Makar, who won more medals than any other swimmer in the 1984 Games.
But Hogshead-Makar, now a professor of law and one of the country’s pre-eminent experts on Title IX, almost missed her chance. Had the effects of Title IX not kicked in just before her high school graduation, leading to a college swimming scholarship, she likely would have given up swimming in 1980.
Hogshead-Makar sees progress in this year’s Olympic numbers, but she continues to see women’s sports programs lagging behind men’s, despite Title IX.
“These are good milestones, but we still a long way to go,” she said. “As far as we have come, we have as far to go.”