— The day after Claressa Shields punched her way to a gold medal in women’s boxing, she was walking through the Olympic village Friday on her way to the dining hall.
With the medal still draped around her neck — “I kept it on everywhere,” she said — she bumped into Carmelita Jeter, a sprinter and teammate on the U.S. squad.
“Girl,” Jeter said, “I want one of those.”
The American women came to the 2012 London Olympics hungry to succeed — Jeter would have her moment anchoring a record-setting 400-meter relay victory later that night — and they have responded with a historic performance.
For the first time, female athletes comprise the majority of the U.S. team and, entering the final weekend of competition, had won more gold and more total medals than the men.
They have sparkled in prime time with Gabrielle Douglas claiming the all-around gymnastics title and the soccer team defeating archrival Japan in the gold-medal final. They have dominated in the pool and shone on the track.
Even in traditionally male domains such as boxing and judo, they have led the way.
“Does it give you an extra smile?” asked Brenda Villa, a member of the gold medal-winning water polo team. “It does.”
The U.S. contingent’s success is not the only reason these Games are being hailed as an important step toward gender equity in sport.
Women represent a record 44% of the nearly 11,000 athletes here. This summer marked the first time that every nation brought at least one female athlete, the International Olympic Committee pressuring Qatar, Brunei and Saudi Arabia to open their previously all-male teams.
“I think it is very symbolically important,” IOC President Jacques Rogge said.
Traditional powers such as China and Russia have had their medal counts boosted by women. But no team has benefited as much as the Americans.
It started on the Saturday after the opening ceremony, with the first of a string of medals in swimming. Then shooter Kim Rhode won a gold in skeet shooting, becoming the first American to win individual medals at five consecutive Games.
Kayla Harrison soon won her weight division in judo. “Absolutely I’m thrilled to see how women have done,” she said. “It feels amazing to be part of something so much bigger than myself.”
Four decades after the passage of Title IX, U.S. Olympic officials credit the federal gender-equity law for encouraging girls to play sports in school and broadening the talent base from which national coaches can recruit.
A larger choice of young athletes can eventually translate into more spots on the podium.
At the 1972 Munich Olympics, American women accounted for less than 24% of the team’s total medals. By the 1992 Barcelona Games, their share had jumped to almost 41%.
After 15 days in London, it stood around 56%.
The increase is just as impressive for gold medals, from 30% in 1972 to 66% this summer, including two more wins Saturday, in basketball and the 1,600-meter relay at the track.
“I think that Title IX really gave us a head start because of the national commitment to make sure that young women are getting the opportunity to be involved in sports,” said Scott Blackmun, chief executive of the U.S. Olympic Committee.
Villa has seen it make a difference at the pool.
“There are more young girls playing water polo,” she said. “They grow up wanting to be an Olympic water polo player.”
Not that everything has been equal between the sexes in London.
Qatar, Brunei and Saudi Arabia brought only a few female athletes, none of them performing well. Before the Games began, judo officials threatened to ban Saudi Arabia’s judoka for wearing a head covering. They finally agreed to allow a modified scarf.
At the beach volleyball venue, there was much debate about women athletes playing in bikinis on English nights that can turn damp and chilly.
Teenager Missy Franklin, who won four gold medals and a bronze in swimming, thinks there is still too much attention paid to how female athletes look. “As women competitors, I don’t think we’re concerned with any of that stuff,” she said. “I think we’re concerned with our sport and what we’ve trained to do.”
Or, as Harrison put it, “Being a strong female competitor is the best thing we can do to fight that.”
Allyson Felix put a happy ending on her story, winning the 200 meters after disappointments at two previous Olympics. Kerri Walsh Jennings and Misty May-Treanor cemented their legacy by winning a third consecutive beach volleyball championship.
Winning medals in London can do more than just dilute stereotypes. The USOC looks for “return on investment” with the athletes and teams that it supports — more success at the Olympics can mean more funding the following year.
With the men’s boxing team faltering badly — kept off the medals podium for the first time in history — Shields and her bronze medal-winning teammate Marlen Esparza helped the cause of the women’s program.
Experts say they might also have persuaded a few more girls to put on boxing gloves.
At the Women’s Sports Foundation, CEO Kathryn Olson talks about a lineage of talented athletes such as Billie Jean King, Lisa Leslie and Mia Hamm who helped to diversify sport over a span of decades.
“We’ve now had multiple generations of role models,” she said. “Young girls are seeing this athletic skill and determination.”
Over the last two weeks, women on the U.S. team sensed all those eyes watching them on television back home. They wonder if their success might plant seeds for a repeat performance two or three Olympics down the line.
“To be able to say I’m a strong, confident young woman and an Olympic champion is amazing,” Harrison said. “And I hope we have a million little girls who are inspired right now.”