Column

American women are dominating the Games, and it didn't happen by accident

A girl wanders into a Houston gym on a school field trip, a worker loves her spark, and a dozen years later she wins four Olympic gold medals.

A girl jumps into a suburban Washington, D.C., swimming pool to make friends, a coach notices her stroke, and a dozen years later she wins four Olympic gold medals.

With five days remaining in the Rio Olympics, the final verdict is in and the winners are the U.S. women.

After 11 of the Olympics’ 16 days, American women have filled the podium, dominated the broadcasts and opened the curtain on an inclusive sports society absent in many parts of the world.

A girl is introduced to judo by her black-belt mother and eventually slams gold.

 A girl is taken hunting by her grandfather and grows up to shoot gold.

 “I was always grown up with encouragement, I was never taught I couldn’t compete,” said gold-medal swimmer Maya DiRado, 23. “This is just an accepted part of our culture.”

The U.S. women have won 41 medals, more than any entire nation except China and Britain. The women have won 17 gold medals, as many as any other country’s entire delegation.

The women have collected  two medals more than the U.S. men, seven more gold medals, and were winning the buzz back home.

During the first half of the Olympics, according to a study by three college professors, 58.5% of the NBC’s prime-time telecasts were devoted to women, the most ever, and why not?

 ”It’s just smart programming,’’ said Andy Billings, a sports media professor at the University of Alabama and one of the study’s authors. “Because we have such a progressive culture, we have a lot of the greatest women athletes in the world.”

Forty-four years after the landmark passage of Title IX, which prohibits discrimination against females in all areas of federally funded education including sports, American women’s athletics is indeed no longer just about participation, it’s about championships.

“We give more opportunity to women in this country, and it’s not even close,” said Donna Lopiano, former chief executive of the Women’s Sports Foundation and a nine-time Amateur Softball Assn. All-American. “You are seeing the effects of that in these Olympics.”

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The U.S. team arrived here with the largest women’s contingent in Olympic history, with 292 women and 263 men. Compare that to 1972, when only 90 of 428 athletes were women.

A 37-year-old Monrovia woman overcomes the effects of a difficult pregnancy to shoot skeet well enough to become the first summer Olympian to win a medal in six consecutive games.

A Muslim fencer becomes the first U.S. athlete to compete while wearing a hijab, then leads her saber team to a bronze medal.

 “In Russia growing up, the boys did sports and the girls did the knitting and housework,” said Mariya Koroleva, synchronized swimmer who moved to Northern California from Russia when she was 9.  “So much more opportunity here, all girls can play sports, that’s the great thing about our country.”

The U.S. women were both mesmerizing and inspiring and that’s just the ones named Simone. Within hours of each other, Simone Biles won the overall gymnastics championship and Simone Manuel, by winning the the 100-meter freestyle, became the first  American black female swimmer to win a gold medal.

Even amid the retiring greatness of Michael Phelps, the swimming star who set two world records was Katie Ledecky. Despite all the youth, one of the most endearing stars was 43-year-old gold-medal winning  cyclist Kristin Armstrong. The most fashionable winner wasn’t a glittery gymnast, but the strong and powerful shot putter Michelle Carter.

“We have many women breaking down so many barriers, the magnitude of this has been pretty awesome,” said Lopiano.

The women’s performance and popularity here are even more compelling considering that the Olympic movement itself has yet to fully embrace gender equity.

The International Olympic Committee has never been led by a woman. Currently the president is a man, three of the four vice presidents are men, and seven of the 10 executive board members are men.

On the U.S. Olympic Committee, 10 of the 16 members of the board of directors are men, including Chairman Larry Probst and Chief Executive Scott Blackmun.

“It’s not perfect,” swimmer DiRado said. “But the more girls can grow up and watch Olympics like this, knowing they’re just as good as the men’s teams, it’s goes a long way.’’

Can it carry over to an increase in U.S. women’s sports popularity during non-Olympic years? So far, no good. The only stable women’s pro sports league is the WNBA, but that basketball league has benefited from the support of the powerful NBA.

”People seem to respond to women in sports when it’s wrapped in an American flag, but for anything else, we have a harder time,” said Billings, who wrote his Olympics report with James Angelini of the University of Delaware and Paul MacArthur of Utica College.

Billings believes some of the problem is the reluctance of the media to cover mainstream women’s athletics — one of his studies show that less than 2%  of ESPN’s nightly “SportsCenter” show is devoted to women’s sports. He believes the other issue is simply time.

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“We tend to gravitate to whatever sports we grew up with, and women’s sports is very slow to evolve, especially with older generations,” Billings said. “But events like these Olympics, they are opening up people to women athletes like nothing else can do.”

The U.S. women’s eight rowing team wins its 11th    consecutive Olympic or world championship, a domination unmatched by the former great Soviet hockey team, which won 10 straight titles.

The U.S. women’s basketball team is blowing out opponents by historic margins, headed for its sixth consecutive Olympic gold medal with a streak of 47 consecutive Olympic wins and counting.

Women rule. A nation marvels. Hopefully, a legacy endures.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com | @BillPlaschke

To read the article in Spanish, click here.

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