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Run the World, Girls
ALEXANDER WOLFF
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

PIERRE DE Coubertin may have been the father of the modern Olympic movement, but he was no Title IX dad. The French nobleman once declared from under that fastidious little mustache of his that an Olympics with women would be, among other things, "uninteresting" and "unaesthetic." Oh, how the first 11 days of the London Olympics put the lie to both claims.

Consider the galvanizing beauty of the women's judo final, in which Kayla Harrison, sexually abused for nearly six years beginning at age 11 by a now-imprisoned male coach, felt safe enough to leap joyfully into the arms of a new sensei, who had helped her discover the self-confidence to win the first U.S. gold medal in the sport.

And consider the race that led to Britain's first gold of the Games, won by a coxless pair that included Heather Stanning, to whom the Royal Artillery granted a leave in 2010 so she could train. Now that she and Helen Glover have accomplished that mission, Captain Stanning is due back with her regiment, which will soon deploy to Afghanistan's Helmand province.

And consider the U.K. weightlifting record that Britain's Zoe Pablo Smith set a week ago Monday, after which she ducked into a Victoria's Secret on the edge of the Olympic Park to do some celebratory shopping. On her blog Smith had rounded on male Internet trolls who targeted her and her teammates for their sport: "[We] prefer our men to be confident enough in themselves to not feel emasculated by the fact that we aren't weak and feeble."

A few people hadn't quite grasped the I-am-woman-watch-me-score spirit of these Games. Beach volleyball, drooled London mayor Boris Johnson (page 84), had delivered to his city "semi-naked women ... glistening like wet otters." But even that sport highlighted the freedom, in the words of Paul McCartney's opening ceremony finale, to let it be. Amidst the thongs and décolletage, a chair umpire, Amina Elsergany of Egypt, commanded matches in hijab.

And so it went: A gymnast, Oksana Chusovitna from Germany, competed on the women's team for artistic gymnastics at age 37. Chinese women, to borrow Mao's phrase, held up more than half their country's medal haul, which led the Games as of Monday. And out at the kayaking venue, Kay Dawson, a judge from New Zealand, held the torch for multitasking moms everywhere, assessing Kiwi paddler Mike Dawson, her son, a penalty for hitting a gate.

With Brunei, Qatar and Saudi Arabia fielding women for the first time, every country in the Olympic movement has now done so. And with their inclusion in boxing on Sunday, women now contest every Olympic sport. Of those two milestones, IOC president Jacques Rogge considers the first the most meaningful, for it was the result of "silent diplomacy" of the most sensitive kind. "We weren't going to make this a public issue," he says. "What counts is the result."

Two of the Arab states that finally sent women suffer from high rates of female diabetes and obesity, but each acted with its own degree of willingness. At one extreme is Qatar, which five years ago launched a campaign to develop school-sports programs for boys and girls alike and build elite facilities, including a sports academy to train young athletes. The country that successfully bid for the 2022 World Cup and has designs on hosting an Olympics doesn't want to be on the wrong side of an emerging global consensus.

At the other extreme is Saudi Arabia, which was threatened with IOC sanctions. The recent death of a conservative crown prince and the ascension of a more moderate replacement helped make the démarche possible. Only three years ago a clerical ruling forbade even single-sex gyms for adult women, and before these Olympics one cleric called women's participation in sports "steps of the devil." Neither of the Saudi female athletes in London—middle-distance runner Sarah Attar and judoka Wojdan Shaherkhani—live or train within the kingdom.

"You can compare what's happening around the world now with what happened in the U.S. 40 years ago," says 1964 swimming gold medalist Donna de Varona, a Title IX crusader in the U.S. who has consulted with the Qataris. "[Title IX] not only transformed sport but our culture."

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