In the 50 years since Title IX passed, women went from having a fraction of the Olympic medal events of men to carrying Team USA, despite still having fewer medal opportunities.
The value of the U.S. women, and by extension the impact of Title IX, was clear on the last day of the Tokyo Games.
The U.S. began Aug. 8 trailing China by two gold medals in the standings. Finishing second would have been a significant defeat, given the U.S. topped the total- and gold-medal standings at every Summer Games since 1996, except when China took more golds when it hosted in 2008 in Beijing.
But the Americans had a closer: their women.
In a span of minutes on the final day, the U.S. women’s basketball team earned its seventh consecutive gold medal, as expected, and track cyclist Jennifer Valente won the omnium, which was unexpected. Then the women’s volleyball team capped it off with the program’s first gold medal.
The final standings: U.S., 39 golds. China, 38 golds. (Two U.S. male boxers also had chances for gold on the last day and came away with silver medals.)
The U.S. finished the Olympics with 66 medals in women’s events, the most ever for any nation.
It won 41 medals in men’s events, the U.S. men’s fewest since the first modern Olympics in 1896, according to Olympedia.org. That stat is all the more startling given there were a record 339 medal events in Tokyo versus 43 medal events in 1896, when only men were allowed to compete.
When Title IX passed in 1972, there were no Olympic basketball or cycling events for women. There was no NCAA women’s volleyball. Title IX provided women equal opportunities in high school and college sports. It lay the foundation for Olympic success.
“The strength of Team USA in Tokyo was on the backs of of our female athletes, many of whom competed in college,” U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee CEO Sarah Hirshland said. “It is a profound thing to see the dominance of U.S. women, particularly relative to other countries around the world who may not have either the collegiate system and the education-based athletics system that we have in this country, but certainly not one that’s catering to women, the way we have through Title IX.”
Dating back farther, some of the first scholarship recipients in the Title IX era starred at the Games.
UCLA’s first four-year female scholarship athlete, Ann Meyers Drysdale, was a catalyst guard for first U.S. Olympic women’s basketball team, which took silver in 1976.
Flo Hyman, a 1984 Olympic silver medalist and arguably the greatest U.S. female volleyball player ever, was the University of Houston’s first female scholarship athlete.
The 1996 Atlanta Games are largely seen as the catapult for women’s sports with many of the stars having grown up entirely in the Title IX era.
It marked the first Olympics for women’s soccer and softball (both U.S. gold medals), the first U.S. Olympic women’s gymnastics team title and the final Olympics for Jackie Joyner-Kersee and Janet Evans.
“There would be no Lisa Leslie without Title IX,” Lisa Leslie, a basketball standout who was born in 1972, said in the 2021 Peacock film, “The ’96 Effect.” “There would be no USA women’s team without Title IX.”
Female stars of those Games, including the Magnificent Seven gymnasts, soccer players like Mia Hamm and basketball players like Leslie became role models for the generation that has come to dominate today.
“Part of the story of the ’96 American women at the Olympics isn’t just their specific achievements, as glorious as many of them were, it’s the ripple effect that it had,” longtime NBC Olympics primetime host Bob Costas said in “The ’96 Effect.” “Broad societal changes were obviously already under way. You need sometimes big, prominent symbols to drive the point home and also to inspire people.”
If you can see it, you can be it, as Billie Jean King says.
Starting with the 1992 Barcelona Games, U.S. women won a greater percentage of available medals than the U.S. men in every Summer Olympics except 2004. Women outnumbered men on a U.S. Olympic team for the first time in 2012 and did so by greater margins in 2016 and 2021.
The last time the U.S. won more medals in men’s events than women’s events at a Summer or Winter Olympics was 2010.
“You can see the impact not just in my generation but even in the younger generation because they have the chance to play,” five-time Olympic basketball champion Sue Bird said. “We have the opportunity to play.”
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