The Pivot Point

Diane Pucin is a staff writer for The Times' Sports section

Until 1960, Olympic rules forbade female athletes from running any distance more than 200 meters because it was feared they would collapse from the strain.

How did we get so quickly from there to the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, when women's softball and soccer and basketball teams, gold medal winners all, recaptured the sweetness and purity of competing in sports for the love of the game? How did we get to a point where the spectacularly muscular, supremely confident, strikingly beautiful Marion Jones won five medals and became the most mesmerizing athlete of the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney?

Title IX.

That 1972 legislation, signed into law by President Richard M. Nixon, mandated that member schools of the National Collegiate Athletic Assn. treat men's and women's sports equally. Since then, the advances for women in sports have been explosive.

Title IX did more than force colleges and universities to give women an equal chance. It created new opportunities that trickled down to even the youngest athletes. If Big State U. was going to offer football and basketball and baseball, it was going to have to offer team sports such as volleyball and basketball and softball for women. It forced high schools to take women's sports seriously--to hire good coaches and maintain competitive teams--so their students could earn college scholarships. It convinced fathers to organize youth teams and encourage their daughters to play.

From Title IX came the glorious 1996 Atlanta Olympics, when the world saw the U.S. dominate the medal count in women's sports. Suddenly, other nations began giving women a chance. Chinese soccer teams and Australian softball teams. Finnish hockey teams, Brazilian basketball teams. All over the world, women are getting chances to play.

In 1970, one out of 27 girls in the U.S. competed in high school varsity sports, according to statistics provided by the Women's Sports Foundation. By 1997, one in three were playing on high school varsity teams. More girls play soccer now than played all youth sports in 1976. They're learning to compete every day on city fields, in the local parks, at beaches and baseball fields, tennis and basketball courts. The lessons learned carry far beyond those boundaries.

Before Title IX, women didn't have as many ways to learn what team play teaches about competing in life. How you work with people you might not like, or even talk to. How you learn about leadership and cooperation, about winning together and losing together.

But women have always been intense competitors, and a new book, "Game Face: What Does a Female Athlete Look Like?" (Random House), reminds us that women were willing and able for generations before Title IX became law. The first known women's golf tournament was played at the Musselburgh Golf Club in Scotland in 1811. (According to one report, the crowd was mostly "fishmonger women.") The first women's intercollegiate basketball game was played between Cal and Stanford in 1896. (No male spectators were allowed.) Suzanne Lenglen won the first of her six Wimbledon titles in 1919 but raised eyebrows because she wore a skirt short enough to show a bit of leg. Gertrude Eberle swam the English Channel in 1926, and in 1932 Babe Didrikson became the first woman to win medals in three different Olympic events.

One of the best things about the book is the glimpse it gives of female athletes pre-Title IX. These women competed mostly by themselves and for themselves. They never heard the cheers of a sold-out stadium crowd or their accomplishments praised on radio or TV. Mostly what they heard were the tsk-tsks of people telling them to pursue more ladylike activities. While the progress of women athletes since Title IX has been amazing, equally amazing was the determination of women around the world a century or more ago to find a way to play.

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The Arts and Industries Building of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., is hosting an exhibit of photographs from "Game Face" from June 27 through Jan. 2, 2002. For more information, call (202) 357-2700, or check the Smithsonian's Web site at www.si.edu.

For the Record Los Angeles Times Sunday July 8, 2001 Home Edition Los Angeles Times Magazine Page 4 Times Magazine Desk 1 inches; 18 words Type of Material: Correction In "The Pivot Point" (by Diane Pucin, June 17), the name of Gertrude Ederle, who swam the English Channel in 1926, was misspelled. FOR THE RECORD Los Angeles Times Wednesday June 20, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 Zones Desk 1 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction Channel swimmer--In Sunday's Magazine story, "The Pivot Point" (by Diane Pucin), the name of Gertrude Ederle, who swam the English Channel in 1926, was misspelled.
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