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Run the World, Girls
August 13, 2012
History has been lit large across the London fortnight—the likely last stands of Phelps and the Dream Team, the kinetic brilliance of Bolt—but the electricity of these Games has come from another growing, if not new, source: towering women
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August 13, 2012

Run The World, Girls

History has been lit large across the London fortnight—the likely last stands of Phelps and the Dream Team, the kinetic brilliance of Bolt—but the electricity of these Games has come from another growing, if not new, source: towering women

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FOR BRITAIN, women's medals seemed to come from everywhere. A relatively private princess, the queen's granddaughter Zara Phillips helped win a silver in team equestrian. Then the weekend brought gold medals to cyclist Victoria Pendleton and heptathlete Jessica Ennis, pre-Games poster girls who had courted pressure by consenting to virtually any appearance and endorsement opportunity. But after she won the host country's first medal, a silver in the women's road race, cyclist Lizzie Armitstead gave the host nation pause. With poise befitting her painted nails and pearl earrings, she called sexist attitudes in her sport "overwhelming and frustrating" and pleaded for funding equal to the men.

But no sport in Britain suffers from a more chauvinistic culture than soccer. In 1921, only months after a factory team drew 53,000 fans to a women's match, England's Football Association barred women from using the pitches of its clubs, a ban that wasn't lifted until 1972. Now more than a million British girls and young women play the game, with countless more surely enticed by these Olympics. The Brits were eliminated last Friday night by Canada, but not before 70,584 fans had turned out at Wembley Stadium to watch the women beat Brazil as loudspeakers boomed out Beyonce's "Run the World (Girls)."

At the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, British women came home with a single medal, Denise Lewis's bronze in heptathlon. In London, the host country's women, through Monday, were at 16 and counting.

UNTIL EIGHT years ago Botswana was like those laggard Arab states that had never sent a woman to the Games, but for a heartbreakingly different reason. If she had been fortunate enough to avoid being among the third of women between 15 and 25 to test positive for HIV/AIDS, a young woman in Botswana was still likely to be touched by the epidemic, for females of her age wound up having to look after the sick and care for the orphaned. The plague gutted the country's budget and made public health a priority over sports. But the rate of infection for HIV/AIDS has begun to abate, and in 2004, Botswana sent to the Athens Olympics a 21-year-old woman, Amantle Montsho, who grew up on the fringe of the country's huge game preserve, sometimes chasing an ostrich behind her house.

In Sunday night's 400 meters, outleaned for third by DeeDee Trotter of the U.S., Botswana's first female Olympian came within .03 of a second of becoming her country's first medalist in any sport. That Montsho was even that close is partly the result of the IOC's Olympic Solidarity program, which supplies her with a $1,300 monthly stipend and covers the cost of travel to qualifying events. For the past five years, the IAAF also paid for her to live with other African prospects at a training center in Senegal, where she steadily lopped more than three seconds off her personal best to win the world title last year.

The IOC and London organizers have been lacerated for their aggressive protection of their sponsors, but the IOC contends that 94% of its revenue goes back into sports, including grants to nurture the next Montsho. "That money helps make sure the Olympics aren't dominated by just five or six countries," says IOC spokesman Mark Adams. "We need universal elite competition."

It turns out that the current IOC president is a kind of Title IX dad. Rogge's daughter sailed internationally for Belgium, and when the wind kicked up at a youth regatta one day, prompting organizers to threaten to let only boys go out on the water, Caroline Rogge exploded at the outrageousness of that thought. "She was constantly reminding me—not that I needed reminding—that women's rights weren't fully accepted," Rogge says. "I remember discussions about women being allowed in Olympic judo, and there was all kinds of prejudice. The same with discussions to include women's boxing 18 months ago."

Rogge will step down next year, and he concedes that his successor—Thomas Bach of Germany, a former Olympic fencer, is regarded as the favorite—will have further work to do. Women are not welcome in every discipline within each sport; canoeing, wrestling and sailing haven't equalized medal opportunities. Meanwhile critics charge that participants who wear the hijab violate the IOC's Rule 50, which bans religious displays in Olympic venues; countries that require it, they contend, are practicing gender apartheid, and the IOC should treat them as it did South Africa's white-supremacist regime, which was exiled from the Olympics for 21 years. On the eve of the Games, a group called London 2012: Justice for Women placed a copy of the Olympic Charter in a coffin and, with a New Orleans jazz band providing funerary music, marched to the middle of the Westminster Bridge and tossed it into the Thames.

But their voices were an exception. In London most people chose to celebrate how far women have come, rather than rue how far they still have to go. "These are ministeps," de Varona says. "But even if you think they're token gestures, they represent beacons of hope. That every country has sent women, I think, we'll look back at as a watershed."

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