LONDON ——The darkened arena pulsed with anticipation, the thousands of spectators roaring and their cameras flashing like giant fireflies as the boxers swaggered in, punching the air, bouncing on the balls of their feet and glaring like gladiators. And then, the chanting started for the favorite of this particular crowd:
"Katie!" "Katie!" "Katie!"
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And women are making their mark on these Olympics in other ways: This is the first time that every country has at least one woman competing, courtesy of none too subtle pressure leveled on such holdouts as Saudi Arabia and Qatar. This is the first time the U.S. team has more women than men on it, 268 to 261, as does Canada's and Russia's.
Some of the gender imbalance of the U.S. team is due to the absence of a men's soccer team, which failed to qualify for these Games. But the numbers alone don't tell the whole story.
Many of the stars who have emerged from these Games so far are women: Gabby Douglas, the spritely gymnast who became the first African-American to win the all-around gold medal, and Missy Franklin, the 17-year-old phenom who goes back to high school with four gold medals and one bronze, just to name two. You can add gymnast Aly Raisman, who won a team gold with Douglas, an individual gold in the floor exercise and bronze on the balance beam. Some American women just continue to thrive in the Olympics: Serena Williams, for example, won the tennis singles and teamed with sister Venus to win their third doubles gold. Shooter Kim Rhode won a medal in her fifth straight Games.
Maryland athletes have also shined at these Games. Angel McCoughtry (St. Frances) has given the U.S. women's basketball team a big lift off the bench as it has steamrolled opposing teams since the start of the tournament. Swimmer Allison Schmitt, who trains at North Baltimore Aquatic Club with Michael Phelps, won five medals, including three golds. Katie Ledecky, 15, of Bethesda, the youngest member of the U.S. swim team, took gold in the 800-meter freestyle.
The home team, Great Britain, is also enjoying a surge of female success: In Atlanta in 1996, only one British woman won a medal; as of Monday, they had 14, including heptathlete Jessica Ennis' gold medal.
But don't ask Anita L. DeFrantz if women are coming into their own with these Olympics. Perhaps, says the bronze-medalist American rower and member of the International Olympic Committee, it's the other way around.
"Maybe it's the Olympic movement that came into its own this year," said DeFrantz, captain of the 1976 U.S. rowing team.
DeFrantz, who chairs the IOC's Committee on Women and Sports, and was instrumental in getting women's soccer and softball added to the 1996 Atlanta Games, said that the Olympics were always based on the ideals of "fair play and respect," which can only be achieved with gender parity. She is most proud of the fact that no country arrived here without a female athlete.
"Now every child in every country can say," she said, "'we have women in the Olympics.'"
In some respects it was only a matter of time before women had more of a share of the Games. The quadrennial event tended to be the one time that female athletes tended to get the kind of attention that their male counterparts get year-round. Much of that is because of the popularity of sports like gymnastics and figure skating, which despite requiring athleticism were considered girly, given the music and glittery costumes and make-up involved. What has changed over the years is the emergence of more women in sports that don't involve such trappings.
March to the medal stand
Swimming, which on Saturday concluded its competition, has always had its female stars, but this year, American women had a particularly successful Olympics: Women won half of the 16 U.S. gold medals in the sport, compared to the two they won in Beijing and three in Athens. In London so far, the top medalist, as always, is Phelps with six. With five though, are his teammate, Ryan Lochte, and two women, Franklin and Schmitt.
During their competition, the female swimmers repeatedly credited their successes to how tight-knit their team was, and credited their coach, Teri McKeever, the first woman to coach a U.S. Olympic swim team. McKeever, who has a gentle, thoughtful demeanor, speaks openly of how women are different and need to be coached differently, almost as if she's taken the Carol Gilligan school of "difference feminism" from the ivory tower to the pool.
"Women are motivated by relationships and a sense of belonging," she said. "I hope what I've done is create a space for them to be women."
Indeed, on the final day of competition, the U.S. women who broke a world record winning gold the 4x100 medley relay were a tangle of long limbs and hugs as they awaited the traditional post-medal press conference.
There were three seats for four of them, so Schmitt pulled Dana Vollmer on her lap, and couldn't stop hugging her in delight, like a particularly cute baby she had been given to hold. Franklin joined in for the group jumble, and Rebecca Soni might have as well had they not had to separate to enter the media room. At the press conference, Vollmer in particular noted how different this team was from others she had been on, and how McKeever had created an atmosphere where they were free to talk about feelings and fears, not the usual locker room talk.