Olympics 2012: US Domination of Women's Sports Proves Power of Positive Thinking
Every four years, we're told that our American female Olympians are playing for something greater than medals.
They are playing to inspire, to uplift, to challenge the notion that women belong in certain boxes.
It's a trope we've been hearing at various volumes over the last four decades, and at times I wonder if the message has grown tired.
How many times can we empower female athletes before it starts to sound like white noise, or worse, implies an alternative to those who would've never otherwise considered it?
Is it overkill? Is it necessary?
Then the skeptic in me peers up at the medal count, and the doubt recedes.
No, it is not overkill. Yes, it is necessary.
Why? Because it's working.
I mean it's really, really working.
The proof is in the numbers. By Saturday evening, women had earned, by my count, 58 of Team USA's 102 total medals.
But the overwhelming success of America's women's teams is even more telling.
By conventional definition, there are six team sports in the Olympic Games*—basketball, soccer, handball, field hockey, volleyball and water polo.
In all of those sports (with one semi-exception), the U.S. women's team was more successful relative to its peers than the U.S. men's team.
Basketball: Women's team dominated en route to gold. Men's team won gold, too, but did not outshine its peers to nearly the same extent.
Soccer: Women's team won third consecutive gold. Men's team didn't qualify.
Handball: Here's our semi-exception. Neither U.S. team qualified, and neither was remotely close. We'll call it a draw.
Field Hockey: Women qualified. Men did not.
Volleyball: Women made second consecutive title game. Men eliminated in quarterfinals.
Water Polo: Women won first ever gold. Men eliminated in quarterfinals.
You can't explain those outcomes by simply gesturing to America's wealth or population size. Of course those are factors, but if those were the only explanations, then men's teams should find equal success.
After all, American male athletes enjoy the same demographic advantages as American female athletes.
So, why the performance gap?
Broadly speaking, the discrepancy is due to a societal attitude that encourages female participation in sports at far higher rates than most other countries.
American female "X" is much more likely to grow up thinking she can become an athlete than if she grew up in, say...
Well...I won't finish that statement. There's no need for mud-slinging. Point is, America has created a culture of acceptance around female athletics that you won't find in many corners of the world.
Team sports—and for that matter, relays—are a fantastic gauge of that principle because they require a diverse and robust talent pool.
Any nation can produce the occasional female medalist in an individual event. There are always exceptions.
But an entire team of exceptions? That rarely happens, if ever.
Success in female team sports (or any team sport) is contingent on a culture that validates and facilitates participation.
All the inspirational Cover Girl commercials and rah-rah platitudes that surface every quadrennium are part of that culture.
They matter because they work. And they work because they matter.
Now none of this is meant to suggest that America is somehow superior in all matters of female athletics. Other countries, I'm sure, are equally adept.
Nor is this intended to advance the myth that we have somehow achieved gender equality. Lord knows there are lingering inequities.
But America is at least ahead of the curve, and the medal count, trivial as it may seem, indicates just that.
We are doing something right.
So when Nike launches its "Voices" campaign—introducing us to the women who "just wanna play ball"—don't dismiss it as tripe.
Because somewhere, a young girl is listening.
And someday, she just may kick your ass.
*My definition excludes disciplines like table tennis where individual components are culled to create team outcomes. We're talking about sports that can't be broken down into individual components.
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