When Jackie Joyner was a kid, growing up poor in East St. Louis, she watched the 1976 summer Olympics on television. She saw a sprinter from the USA named Evelyn Ashford. Inspired by Ashford, Joyner set to work - in school as well as in sports.
Today, Jackie Joyner-Kersee is an inspiration in her own right. Who knows how many children watched her win an Olympic medal in 1988?This is the best thing about the Olympics: They are inspirational. This is the best thing about women Olympians: Little girls of every nation can see something to dream about, someone to emulate.
In the final analysis, this is also the best thing about the book "Grace and Glory," a 100-year history of women in the Olympics. With such an inspirational subject, the book pretty much can't miss.
"Grace and Glory" is written in a pedestrian style, kind of like a Time-Life book for the junior high student. The author, Jane Leder, doesn't even have her name on the cover. By this exclusion, the publishers seem to be advising the reader not to focus on style or tone.
But no matter how brief or how straightforward the biographies are, each woman's story is in some way thrilling.
"Grace and Glory" chronicles women you remember and women you've forgotten. Take Yael Arad. Did you remember she won Israel's first Olympic medal, in 1992? In judo?
She dedicated her medal to the 11 Israeli athletes who were killed by terrorists at the Olympic games in 1976. She reminds us, "Sport is the purist thing. When you win in sports it has nothing to do with politics."
You probably remember Babe Didrikson, one of 127 women in the 1932 games in Los Angeles. Didrikson was one of the greatest all-around athletes.
She set U.S., Olympic or world's records in five different track and field events between 1930 and 1932. By the end of her career, she'd excelled in a dozen different sports. To quote "Grace and Glory," "She won a total of 82 golf tournaments. She ranked high enough as a basketball player to be given the honorary title of All-American. She could swim close to world record time for short distances and she carried a .400 batting average in a Dallas softball league. She was phenomenal."
Today's girls may want to know about women who paved the way, breaking down barriers so they don't have to. Examples abound in "Grace and Glory":
- When a Greek woman named Melpomene was forbidden to enter the marathon in the 1896 Olympics, she ran anyway. She wasn't allowed into the stadium to cross the finish line, so she ran her final lap around the outside.
- In 1912, when Australian Fanny Durak stood a good chance of winning medal in swimming, she had to fight to get a ladies' competition included in the program. Swimming was considered immodest and unladylike. She got no support from her country, either. She paid her own way to Stockholm. There she won a gold medal - one of two golds Australia got that year.
- France's Suzanne Lenglen revolutionized women's tennis in 1920, when she refused to play in a corset and long skirt. Instead, she wore a knee-length pleated skirt with silk stockings - as well as a jeweled headband and makeup on her face. She launched a new era in women's athletic wear.
- A Dutch runner, Fanny Blankers, competed in the 1936 Olympics when she was 18. Then came World War II. No more Olympics until 1948. By then, Blankers was married with two children.
Having allowed women to do men's work during the war, society now wanted them back in the home. Blankers was widely criticized as an uncaring mother.
Her husband defended her, explaining how she cooked and sewed and knitted all their children's sweaters. When Blankers won three gold medals, the London Daily Graphic presented her victories in a positive light, under the headline: "Fastest Woman in the World Is an Expert Cook."
- Fast forward to the 1990s. If you think modern women face no obstacles, read about Hassiba Boulmerka from Algeria.
Her father always supported her dream to become a world-class runner. But not everyone in her Muslim country feels that women should be athletes.
When she trained along public roads, men would sometimes spit or throw rocks at her. When she won her country's Medal of Merit, fundamentalists denounced her for "running with naked legs in front of thousands of men."
She remains undaunted. In 1992, in Barcelona, when she won a gold medal in the 1,500-meter race, she took her victory lap shouting, "Algeria, Algeria, Algeria." Boulmerka dedicates her victories to all Arabic women.