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August 12, 2012

To answer the question of whether the 2012 Olympics marked a breakthrough for women in sport, all you have to do is look at the stats. For the first time, every sport had a women's competition. As of Saturday afternoon, women had won 56 of the U.S.'s 100 medals. Of those, 29 are gold. The youngest U.S. team member, a female swimmer named Katie Ledecky, won gold and broke an American record.  And that's just the Americans.

Brunei, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, at last, permitted women athletes on their teams.  That doesn't mean all countries had women athletes: The Telegraph reminded us on the next-to-last day of competition that Barbados, Nauru, and St. Kitts and Nevis brought no women. Bhutan and Chad had only women participants (two each). Women were responsible for 15 of 31 world records broken. I could go on.

Here's what I've learned watching these two weeks:

Fit people are beautiful. It's okay to admire people when they do amazing things. It's (still!) not okay to suggest that they should wear skirts, as the International Amateur Boxing Association tried to make female boxers do, or to Photoshop female athletes so they look like Maxim models.

It's not about whether you're a man or a woman; it's how you play the game. Men and women are equally able to display grit, joy, despair, pride and good sportsmanship. The first thing Grenada's Kirani James did after finishing first in the men's 400m semifinal was trade bibs with Oscar Pistorius, the South African who finished last. Boxing silver medalist Sofya Ochigava  (Russia) told Irish gold medalist Katie Taylor, as reported by Irish Radio, that it was a privilege to be in the ring with her. Men and women are also equally susceptible to doping, as in the case of Syrian female hurdler Ghafran Almouhamad, and cheating, as with male South African swimmer Cameron van der Bergh.

Don't judge an athlete by its cover. Olympians like 350-pound weightlifter Holley Mangold and not-quite-taut swimmer Leisel Jones perform better and work harder than most people ever will. Those who've jeered at them, like Conan O'Brien or the Australian press, only make themselves look like idiots.

Same goes for the sports themselves.
Rhythmic gymnastics, synchronized swimming, trampoline yes, they are sports. Just because something is beautiful doesn't mean it's less physically demanding. (As a figure skater, I've been hearing this boring argument since I was 12.) In fact, part of what makes these sports so difficult is keeping it graceful and artful while executing excruciatingly difficult moves. The same principle applies for shooters and archers: Hitting 25 bullseyes in a row is no mean feat just ask Olympic history-maker Kim Rhode, who became the  first American athlete to win five medals in an individual event in five consecutive Olympic Games. It requires nerves of steel and the ability to assimilate small bits of information quickly skills that, some brain research suggests, women may be more predisposed toward than men.

Cynicism makes you look stupid. Cases in point: Anyone who bitched about gymnast Gabby Douglas's hair; anyone who bitched about people bitching about Gabby Douglas's hair; or, by some measure.  the Canadian women's soccer team after their semifinal loss to the U.S.

Advertisers have come a long way. 
Examples abound. For one, McDonald's featured boxer American boxer Marlen Esparza working out in her gym no cover-girl looks, no gratuitously titillating shots of body parts. But it was Nike, with its "Voices" campaign (above), that hit it out of the park. Featuring pioneering distance runner Joan Benoit Samuelson and other female Olympians past and present talking about the obstacles they overcame to pursue their sports, it sends a truly positive message to girls: Whatever you want to do, expect people to discourage you; they might try to stop you. Do it anyway.

Stay in your own boat. I don't know where the aphorism came from, or where I heard it first, but I couldn't get it out of my mind this week when I watched Josefa Idem of Italy place first in the semifinal of the 500m single-person kayak event. At 47, she's raced in eight Olympics and been competing for nearly 30 years. In that race, she came from behind, and when she pulled across the finish line her face was all focus. She didn't do that or sustain a three-decade career as a champion by paying attention to anything but what's in her boat: her fitness, her technique, her discipline; not the water, not the weather and definitely not the boaters around her. That's how every Olympian got there.

Life as a spectator is a huge time suck
. That marathon I'm training for is less than three months away. As inspiring as these folks are, I'm really looking forward to not sitting on my butt watching TV anymore.