LONDON — Gabby Douglas. Jessica Ennis. Missy Franklin. Ye Shiwen. And don’t forget the Olympics’ first female judo fighter from Saudi Arabia.
Some scoffed at early hype that the games would be a breakout moment for women, but 11 days in, female athletes have dominated the headlines. Save for a few bursts from Michael Phelps and the indomitable Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt, it’s hard to imagine the London Games without them.
Certainly, the 2012 Games would have lacked a majority of their defining moments, like Douglas soaring gracefully over the balance beam, or the supremely fit Ennis taking heptathlon gold for host Britain, or the six women’s world records swept away in the pool, as opposed to just three by the men. Or the last-minute, overtime header by Alex Morgan that sent the U.S. women’s soccer team to a white-knuckle semifinal victory against Canada.
And at least for the United States and China, the runaway medals leaders have been women. Through Tuesday afternoon, U.S. women had won 19 golds and 34 medals overall, compared to just 10 golds and 29 medals for American men. Chinese women have also won more golds than men, and have outmedaled their countrymen 40-to-28.
Male headliners like the U.S. Dream Team have continued their march to likely basketball gold, but without much pizazz — and virtually no defense. Other men have disappointed.
The American men’s gymnastics team, favored to win gold, ended up fifth. Britain’s cycling god Mark Cavendish failed to win the road race on the first day of competition. And the host nation’s athletics captain and gold medal hopeful Dai Green finished off the podium in the 400-meter hurdles.
Meanwhile, superstar Am-erican women have risen to the occasion. Take Serena Williams, who defeated Maria Sharapova to win gold in singles tennis, then teamed with sister Venus to bring home the doubles title as well. Or the “Fierce Five” U.S. women gymnasts, who not only won gold but are being hailed as perhaps the greatest team of all time.
Even most of the bad news at these games has involved female athletes, like the eight women badminton players sent home for intentionally trying to lose, and the Greek triple jumper expelled for a racist tweet.
Timo Lumme, the director of television and marketing for the International Olympic Committee, said the dominance of female athletes has sparked a surge in viewership of the games among American girls, evidence that women’s success is already inspiring the next generation. Ratings are 89 percent higher among 12- to 17-year- old girls than for the hit teen drama “Glee,” the highest-rated network show in that demographic.
“You look at athletes such as Katie Ledecky, the 15-year-old who won the 800-meters (in swimming), and the massive amount of social media activity. ... What you are seeing is a real confluence of interest which is translating into the inspirational qualities of the athletes being spread to as many people as possible.”
To be sure, the men have also had their moments.
Going into the games, all eyes were on Bolt to defend his title as the world’s fastest man, and he did it in pulsating style, setting an Olympic record in the process. Phelps finished his career as the most decorated athlete in Olympics history. Bradley Wiggins took gold in the time trial, weeks after becoming the first Briton to win the Tour de France. And Andy Murray finally broke through at Wimbledon, beating Roger Federer in the final.
But 2012 will be remembered for the women.
For the first time, the United States sent more female athletes than male to the games, joined by Russia, Canada and China; Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei sent female athletes to the Olympics for the first time. And the addition of women’s boxing means women are competing in all 26 events, another first.
Saudi judo fighter Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani was little match for her Puerto Rican opponent, but she won the admiration of many back home. Those who claim her inclusion was little more than window-dressing covering the Gulf kingdom’s restrictions on female citizens ignore the fact the teen’s story put those issues squarely in the public eye.
“It fills me with pride to see that the path female athletes like I helped open has been taken by so many women competing at these games," said Theresa Zabell, a two-time gold-medal-winning sailor who is part of Madrid’s efforts to win the 2020 Games, noting that Spanish women have won five of the country’s six medals.
Zabell, the Olympic champion in Barcelona in 1992 and in Atlanta four years later, said she could have competed as a teenager in the 1984 Games in Los Angeles but female sailors were not allowed.
“This seems impossible today, but it is a sign of how things have changed,” she said, adding she hoped the performance of women in future games will become a non-story.
“The best thing will be when there is no need to mention it,” she said. “Because that will mean we have truly reached equality.”