In the 1972 Olympics, the U.S. team had 316 men and 84 women. The women won 10 of the team’s 33 gold medals. Forty years later in London, the team is composed of 268 women and 261 men. As of Thursday night, women had won 26 of the team’s 39 gold medals.
Title IX, a federal law passed 40 years ago, has made all the difference. It mandated that federal dollars be distributed so that women would be given an equal shot to compete in sports. Since then, women have seized the opportunity and run with it.
“There is no doubt in anybody’s mind this is a direct function of our having the strongest sports law in the world as far as gender equity,” said Donna Lopiano, the former president of the Women’s Sports Foundation.
We think nothing today of cheering for the likes of Misty May-Treanor, Hope Solo, Abby Wambach, Gabby Douglas, Allyson Felix, Missy Franklin and Kristin Armstrong. In fact, they are the backbone of a U.S. Olympic team that leads the competition in total medals.
But their achievements are even more impressive when you consider the barriers female athletes have had to hurdle in the past 40 years. A 1973 Sports Illustrated article noted some examples of discrimination:
• At the University of Washington, 41 percent of the students were women, but they got less than 1 percent of the amount spent on sports. That was an improvement. In 1957, no money was spent on women’s sports.
• Before 1973, no money was spent for interscholastic sports in Utah and Nevada and in many communities throughout the country.
• In 1969, a Syracuse, N.Y., school board budgeted $90,000 for sports for boys. Girls got $200. After budget cutting, the boys were left with $87,000 and the girls got nothing.
The excuses for this inequity sound silly today. Women don’t like to compete. They wouldn’t reap the same benefits from sports. In a 1971 ruling, a Connecticut judge said, “Athletic competition builds character in our boys. We do not need that kind of character in our girls.”
More women are judges now, too.
When fairness began to make headway, the entrenched sports establishment said the money simply wasn’t available for girls. An athletics official in Wisconsin said, “The facilities thing will get worse. Girls haven’t figured out yet how to use the urinals.”
This discrimination can’t be entirely chalked up to generational differences. In the early 1900s, there was wide participation in sports among girls and women. But when girls’ basketball started to get scheduled as doubleheaders with the boys’ teams, it became scandalous. Herbert Hoover’s wife headed a committee that was shocked to learn that women were competing in front of men and in athletic uniforms. From there, a crackdown ensued to segregate women’s sports and to downplay competition.
This didn’t turn around until Congress passed Title IX in 1972. Now women get to experience the same thrill of victory and agony of defeat as men. And the country is better off for it.