Its not that US women are pulling away from the rest of the world. Whats impressive about the US womens performance is that they keep winning medals consistently even as the number of womens events and the number of competitors keep racing upward.
So whats going on? Soccer, swimming, basketball and a few other sports are direct beneficiaries of Title IX, the gender-equity legislation that led to a rapid expansion of womens sports in US colleges. But that doesnt explain everything: some of the sports with US contenders cycling, judo, boxing, triathlon and taekwondo dont have college programs. Colleges offer gymnastics and tennis, but Olympic hopefuls in those sports typically bypass or defer collegiate sports.
Yet Title IXs impact went beyond those sports, says Nancy Hogshead-Makar, who won three swimming golds at the 1984 Olympics, before leading the Womens Sports Foundation and launching an advocacy group called Champion Women.
It normalized sports participation, Hogshead-Makar says. From 200,000 girls playing [high school] sports, within five years, it was two million. Now weve got 3.2 million playing high school sports. So now its not unusual. Before, it was a little bit freaky for someone to play a sport and certainly to be really good.
And women have usually been ahead of their male counterparts at the Olympics. From 1988 onward, US women have won medals at a higher rate than the US team as a whole in six out of seven Summer Games. With the growth in womens sports, along with a down year for US men, 2012 was the year the US womens medal haul finally surpassed the mens at a Games.
Gold medals in particular swung the womens way. In 2008, the US men won 20 gold medals, while the women won 15 and one (team jumping, equestrian) was mixed. In 2012, US women won 29 golds to 17 for the men.
Staying ahead of the world, though, is a challenge. Because US women get these opportunities, we tend to excel in sports that just come on to the Olympic program for women, Olympic historian Bill Mallon says. After the sports have had a couple Olympics, and other nations realize they can win medals in these sports because there may not be as much competition, they ramp up their womens efforts and tend to catch up to the USA.
Mallon cites synchronized swimming as a prime example. From the sports Olympic debut in 1984 through 1996, the USA won medals in all seven events, with five golds. From 2000 onward, the USA has only two medals, both bronze.
Global competition continues to grow across the board. In 1992, fewer than 30% of the athletes at the Olympics were women. In 2012, it was nearly 45%. Media reports from London suggested that, for the first time, every countrys Olympic delegation included female athletes. Technically, that wasnt true. While Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Brunei sent female athletes for the first time, two tiny nations Barbados and Nauru sent no female athletes. Also, Saint Kitts & Neviss lone female athlete was sent home before competing due to a doping infraction. But those countries have sent female athletes in the past, and Barbados has qualified at least five female athletes for the 2016 Games.
Women have cleared many hurdles worldwide, but not all of them. A 2013 report by the Sharp Center, a partnership between the Womens Sports Foundation and the University of Michigan, tracks the improved opportunities for women from the days of female participation being regarded as impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic and improper to today. The arguments that women simply could not handle longer distances on the track and in the pool would seem quaint if they hadnt been used to keep down womens ski jumping in the 21st century.
In the USA and globally, the Sharp Center notes a lack of women in leadership positions. For women in coaching and in administration, the numbers are as bad as it was pre-Title IX, Hogshead-Makar says. The law should protect them, but its not as robust.
Getting more women in leadership positions is one of the Sharp Centers recommendations. Another is to get the number of athletes in the Games to 50%, not just in the USA but worldwide. When you look at the barriers women still have around the world while the USA is clearly not No1, we have far fewer barriers than other countries, Hogshead-Makar said.
Within the USA, the biggest challenge is with professional leagues. Europe and other regions have well-established leagues in basketball, soccer and volleyball.
Most of our women basketball players and volleyball players have had to go overseas to play professionally, although somewhat changing now with the WNBA, Mallon said. Still, most of the WNBA players also play overseas to supplement their salaries, which are not great.
Between the pro leagues and serious investments in female athletes, plenty of countries are gearing up to have their own Year of the Woman. Soon, itll no longer be a novelty.