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Soccer Finals Is Latest Gold for U.S. Women Dominating London Games

August 9, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Forty years ago, when Title IX was first enacted, only one in 27 girls played sports. Fast-forward to 2012 and the numbers have increased to 2 out of every 5 girls. Kathryn Olson of Women's Sports Foundation talks to Jeffrey Brown about the amazing performance of American women at the London Olympics.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Along with the rest of us, and no doubt even more closely, Kathryn Olson has watched these successes. She’s CEO of the Women’s Sports Foundation, a group dedicated to improving the lives of girls and women through sport.

So, is this a surprise, all of this, all — the great numbers? How big have these Games been for women athletes?

KATHRYN OLSON, Women’s Sports Foundation: Well, I think these have been phenomenal games for women athletes around the world.

They have really been the golden games for women. So that’s really thrilling for us all of us that care.

JEFFREY BROWN: What explains it? First, start with the U.S. situation. What’s happened, in your mind, to lead to so much success?

KATHRYN OLSON: Well, there’s no question that the passage of Title IX 40 years ago has — we have seen the fruition of that and that come today in what we’re seeing in the games, particularly as you look at the strength of the team sports, you know, soccer winning today, water polo winning for the first time.

We have had such success in the gymnastics all-around, as well as other teams as well. And, so, 40 years ago, it was really not — there were not that many women playing sport. There were one in 27 playing sport. And we have advanced to two in five today.

So I think what you’re seeing today, 40 years after Title IX, is the strength of women athletics and the interest in the skill that they have in these games.

JEFFREY BROWN: So you have seen training change over time. Is it opportunities, as well as the type of training?

KATHRYN OLSON: Yes, it’s clearly opportunity.

You know, 40 years ago, there wasn’t the opportunity for women to play. And it has slowly increased over time, with opportunities at the high school level, as well as at the collegiate level, and so definitely opportunity.

That — many years ago, there were not that many coaches that were coaching women’s teams, and, today, there are. And so you definitely have seen — have seen progress in those areas, and that’s coming to fruition. But it’s also the determination of these girls.

Take Allyson Felix, for example. Eight years ago, she won a silver medal. Four years ago, she won another silver medal. And that wasn’t good enough for her, even though a silver medal is fantastic.

And it’s the determination in these young women. She went and actually changed her training routine. She hired what she felt was a great coach.

And then she wins gold yesterday. And that’s — that’s her determination. That’s her desire to be the best in the world, even though she had already won silver twice. So you’re seeing that as well.

JEFFREY BROWN: And I assume, along with the determination of the athletes, is a psychological shift in the country, where this is normal and quite expected for young girls to start playing right away.

KATHRYN OLSON: Yes. Absolutely.

And that’s what’s so rewarding. Many years ago, the perception was that girls actually didn’t enjoy sports, they shouldn’t be playing sports, it wasn’t safe. It’s almost laughable to think about that today, when you look at the new definition of beauty that these women are portraying. They’re strong. They’re fierce competitors. They want to win. They won’t give up until they win.

And, really, that’s the new beauty.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s funny that you use that word, beauty.

Sally Jenkins in The Washington Post, a sports columnist, she wrote about this today. And she was talking about the two winners in the — in beach volleyball, and how early on when they began, there was a lot of focus on what they wore. It was on the bikinis. But she said you don’t hear that much about that anymore.

 

KATHRYN OLSON: Which is terrific.

And we shouldn’t be hearing about that. With Kerri and Misty, how can you comment on anything but their skill and the fact that they have dominated that sport, three gold medals in a row? I mean, it’s fantastic, and it really speaks to their skill. And that’s what we should be talking about when we talk about the two of them.

It was an all-American final. And to have them win is really terrific. And they’re not the only ones that have come back for a three-peat. The soccer — the U.S. soccer team won today. There’s a number of people. Heather — both of the Heathers have been — Heather O’Reilly, this is her third gold medal. This is the third gold medal for the team.

I anticipate we will see another gold medal for the women’s basketball team. I think that will make it number five. I don’t want to get ahead of myself.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes, don’t do that.

KATHRYN OLSON: But they have been — I don’t want to do that, but they have been playing exceptionally well.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about the rest of the world? This is not just an American phenomenon. We’re seeing lots of success by American women. But where do you see big gains, and where do you still see some barriers?

KATHRYN OLSON: Yes.

You know, a big gain, we have to, first of all, give credit to team G.B. It’s been thrilling. Jessica Ennis, her victory, I think she’s captured the heart of that nation. If you look in the stands, you see the citizens of Great Britain and of London acting like Americans. They’re doing the wave. They’re high-fiving. I mean, it’s really brought that country to life, which is terrific.

As you look around the world, there are countries that have had women on the team for the first time. Saudi Arabia is one of those. And I say that is a step forward, but that there’s a long way to go.

It’s terrific that those women are in the games. They can’t train in their country, so there’s a long way to go with that. So, I think there’s a lot of work that needs to be done there.

I have to say there’s also work that needs to be done in our country. I’m especially delighted to see the number of African-American winners this year. If you think back to the 1948 Olympics in London, the last time London hosted the games, Alice Coachman was the first African-American woman to win gold. And now there’s so many, it’s hard to name, between Allyson and Brittney and Gabby, Venus and Serena, Sanya Richards-Ross.

And these athletes are role models for that community.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right.

KATHRYN OLSON: And a girl of color is the most likely to be overweight, the least likely to be active.

And I think they’re saying, hey, come on, come out there. Let us be role models for you.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK.

KATHRYN OLSON: And it gives me hope that they will — that many girls will aspire to the — but not in — it doesn’t have to be an Olympic level, to go out there, be active and participate in sport and fitness.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. We have to leave it there.

Kathryn Olson of the Women’s Sports Foundation, thanks so much.

KATHRYN OLSON: Thank you.