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The Olympic Spirit: It's a 'Girl Thing'

by Meg Heery

August 9, 2012

While the books have yet to be closed on these Games, there’s no doubt that “women setting records” has been a visible and recurring theme. Ethiopia’s Tiki Gelana set a new Olympic record for the women’s marathon. The sound of records shattering, sometimes hourly, could be heard at the aquatics center and the velodrome.

And if it wasn’t clear a week ago that women really are the shining stars of these Olympics, Day 12, August 8, put all doubt to rest. As the Olympics start their kick to the finish, the influence of female athletes is accelerating all over London from beach volleyball to water polo. And for the first time, people get to see it all happen.

There’s the thrill of victory! Over at the track in the women’s 400 meters, Sanya Richards-Ross at long last won her gold medal for Team USA. In the 800 meters, both U.S. runner Alysia Johnson Montano and South Africa’s Caster Semenya head to the semifinal with very fast times and a chance at a record-setting final. This year, Semenya will finally get to run in peace, no longer dogged as she was in the 2009 world championships by unfounded yet very public suspicions that she was somehow not female enough to compete in the women’s field.

At the other big-ticket race of the day, fans watched a thrilling 200m sprint that ended with the U.S. and Jamaica alternating in spots one through five. On top: Allyson Felix (USA) in her dream race. Then Jamaica’s Shelly-Ann Fraser Pryce, who won the 100 two nights earlier, with a personal best of 22.09 seconds. Then Carmelita Jeter, (US) Veronica Campbell-Brown (Jamaica) and Richards-Ross followed, with just a hundredth of a second separating the latter two.

Poolside, synchronized swimming pair Natalia Ishchenko and Svetlana Romashina of Russia celebrated their nearly perfect score from Tuesday and a seventh consecutive gold for Russia since the 2000 Games in this grueling sport.

(In truth, water polo was pretty quiet on the women’s side. While the men’s teams played quarterfinals, the women from Australia, Hungary, Spain and the U.S. rested up for their gold- and bronze-medal matches on Thursday.)

Meanwhile, over at beach volleyball, the dynamic and undefeated U.S. duo Misty May-Treanor and Kerry Walsh-Jennings ended their Olympic career with one more gold. With compatriots Jennifer Ross and April Kessy flashing the silver, the veterans  celebrated their kids and passed the baton.

There’s the agony of defeat! Chinese boxer Ren Cancan doused American Marlen Esparza’s hope for boxing gold. After offering a post-bout analysis, Esparza announced her plans to move on to college and career: “I’m done,” she said, holding back tears. Motocross cyclist Brooke Crain took a nasty spill in her first ride, flipping over her bike’s handlebars and chest-planting into a gravelly hill. Also in the 800m heats, Merve Aydin of Turkey succumbed to an injury mid-race.

In the final heat of the day, Saudi Arabia’s Sarah Attar (one of the pioneers we profiled on Monday) finished dead last, a full 32 seconds behind the next athlete up on the list – to the cheers of hundreds witnessing history.

In both loss and success, women display the classic Olympic spirit that is the reason we watch the Games in the first place. Esparza fought a close bout against a world champion. Crain will be back to ride with her team. Aydin could barely walk, and she crossed the finish line in tears, but she crossed the finish line anyway. Attar was the first Saudi woman athlete to cross the finish line at all.

These athletes bring something else, too, something that’s hard to put a finger on, a kind of joy and esprit de corps that’s different from what male athletes show us. When have you ever heard a male teammate say anything quite like “Misty as changed my life. I just love her. I want to win tomorrow for us,” as Walsh-Jennings did before their last final together? Call it a “girl thing.”

Whatever it is, the payoff has been tremendous. Attendance for the women’s soccer final between the U.S. and Japan is expected to surpass 83,000 -- the highest ever. Likewise, the numbers aren’t in yet on who’s watched what on which devices, but a glance at Twitter, Facebook or any daily paper will tell you that the world has women on its collective mind. Mostly in a good way, despite snipes about hair or gripes about sore losers, including my own.

The revelation of London 2012 is not that women compete, and compete well, within a deeply flawed system – one in which media jump at the cheap shot and rulemakers try to define what’s “female enough.” The real revelation is that this time everyone is watching, awestruck and inspired.

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Meg Heery is a freelance editor and a regular contributor to the Jersey City Independent and NEW magazine. (On Twitter, check for her more frequent notes on the Games@megheery.)

See also:

Meg Heery, "Women's Soccer: 'You cheated!' Really?"  On the Issues Cafe, August 8, 2012

Gwen Deely, “Water Borne: Swimming in Competition And In Life." On the Issues Cafe, May 24, 2012

Lindsay Parks Pieper, "Rules Put Extreme Pressure On Transsexual Players." On the Issues Magazine, Spring 2012.


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