Year of the Woman in 2012 London Summer Games

By Paul Haven

Associated Press

Published: Thursday, July 26 2012 8:49 p.m. MDT

Claressa Shields, left, is one of a crowd of female athletes grabbing the limelight at the 2012 London Olympic Games.

Associated Press

LONDON — Claressa "T-Rex" Shields gives new meaning to the term girl power.

The 17-year-old middleweight from Flint, Mich., is known for powerful combos and lightning footwork, and is the youngest competitor in women's boxing, a new event at the London Olympics.

She's also one of a crowd of female athletes grabbing the limelight at the 2012 Games, which are quickly shaping up as a watershed for women's sports.

Cynics say Olympic organizers have been touting the coming of gender equality for years, but 2012 does bring several important crossovers.

For the first time, there are more women on the U.S. team than men, 269 to 261, and Russia's team, which is nearly as big, is also majority-female. Saudi Arabia has sent its first two women to the competition, and the games feature what in all likelihood is the most pregnant athlete to compete in an Olympics: Malaysian shooter Nur Suryani Mohamed Taibi, who is due to give birth to a girl any day now.

Even Britain's poster athlete for the Games is a woman — heptathlete Jessica Ennis, who in addition to appearing on countless London billboards also beams up at arriving visitors from a field along the Heathrow airport flight path. A 173-by-264-foot likeness of the telegenic star is painted on the grass there.

"This is a big moment for women's sports," said Shields, who was stretching and shadowboxing at a sweltering training facility near the Olympic Village, her hands wrapped tightly in pink boxing tape, an American flag do-rag on her head.

Boxing was the last sport organizers needed to add so that women compete in all Summer Olympic events, "and now they have," she said.

"How far have women come in the Olympics?" asked Karla Wolters, a retired professor and longtime coach of women's softball at Hope College in Michigan. "Put it this way: If Baron Pierre de Coubertin, the founder of the modern Olympics, knew that there were more (American) women than men in this year's London Olympics, I'm sure he would be rolling over in his grave. He was totally against having women in the Olympics."

Indeed, in the first games, in Athens in 1896, all 256 competitors were men. Women were allowed to compete four years later, with tennis player Charlotte Cooper the first champion. (Medals were not awarded until 1904.)

But the surge in high-profile women at the world's premier sports competition is a relatively recent phenomenon. The numbers began to pick up in the 1990s.

"I'm proud to say that the Olympic movement is living up to its own ideals of fair play and mutual respect," said Anita DeFrantz, a former Olympic rower and chair of the International Olympic Committee Women and Sport Commission. "All the sports on the program have women and men. I'm very proud where we are now that all the National Olympic Committees in the world will have women Olympians."

DeFrantz said more women took part in Summer and Winter Games from 1998 through 2010 than in all the competitions from 1900 through 1984 combined, and 45 percent of the 10,800 athletes in London are women, a record. For the first time, every nation will have at least one female athlete.

While the Dream Team men's basketball squad, American swimmer Michael Phelps and Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt are still likely to generate the biggest headlines, female athletes such as American hurdler Lolo Jones and Italian swimmer Federica Pellegrini aren't far behind. And in some of the less-followed sports, female athletes are the main story.

That is certainly the case in shooting, where fans are holding their breath to see whether Malaysia's Taibi will give birth before competing in her specialty, the 10-meter air rifle competition. And in weightlifting, where American superheavyweight Holley Mangold has captured hearts with her irreverent, sometimes bawdy comments on living with obesity.

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