By Melanne Verveer
U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues
There’s been a lot of talk about how the London Olympics will best be remembered as the Women’s Olympics. Not only because of the individual performances of gymnast Gabby Douglas, or swimmer Missy Franklin, or heptathlete Jessica Ennis, but because of the collective achievements of women who participated in these London Games.
The statistics are amazing: Two thirds of the gold medals, and more than half of all medals won by Team USA, were won by American women. And this was despite the fact that women were eligible for 30 fewer medals than the men! The American women did not stand alone in leading their countries to the top of the medal tables. Women from China and Russia (#2 and #3 behind the U.S. in the total medal count), also took home more medals than their male counterparts.
Forty-four percent of all athletes at the games were women, and with the exception of three countries, every participating national delegation had a woman athlete on its team. The vast majority of these women never came even close to a medal ceremony. Tahmina Kohistani, the only woman on the Afghan team, came in 31st out of 32 women in the 100 meters. But she triumphed by competing in London. She overcame great odds, including defeating the voices of those who did not believe women should compete in the games. Kohistani, with determination and discipline, and wearing the red, green and black of her country on her headscarf, posted a personal best time in Olympic Stadium. I am hopeful that there will be more Afghan women following in her footsteps. She is an inspiration and a true Olympian, as are women like runner Habiba Ghribi, who became the first Tunisian woman to ever earn an Olympic medal – a silver in the 3000-meter steeplechase. And yet it is frustrating that when she got home, there were voices who did not embrace her victory as a moment of national pride and celebration, but instead condemned her for the clothes she wore during her race.
I have no doubt that for the U.S. women – especially perhaps for those who won their medals as part of a team – soccer, basketball, water polo, volleyball – their success can be traced in a straight line directly to Congress’ decision 40 years ago to pass Title IX, the landmark law that ensures that women and girls have equal opportunities to participate in school-based sports teams. Even for those women whose athletic careers might have been nurtured outside of school – the gymnasts, for instance – Title IX certainly made it easier and more acceptable for women athletes of all stripes to pursue their training at an elite level.
America now has the highest sports participation rates for women and girls in the world. We know from experience that sports can be an essential tool for promoting women’s leadership and empowerment. That is why under Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s leadership, the State Department has undertaken a global effort to mobilize all of its diplomatic tools to use sports as a means to empower women and girls worldwide.
In London, we saw the contributions to national pride and achievement that women could make when they were given an equal chance to perform to their greatest God-given potential. Women proved themselves in sports in London, but imagine what more they could achieve on behalf of their countries when given equal rights and opportunity to participate not just in athletics, but in every sector of society – in business, government, education. The World Economic Forum has found that those countries where women and men are closer to enjoying equal rights are far more economically competitive than those where women have little or no access to medical care, education, elected office and the marketplace. Imagine the progress we could make in economic and technological development, in global health, in democratic governance, if the potential of women in each of these fields could be finally and fully unleashed.
I hope the world can look to the Olympics as just the tip of the iceberg of what women can achieve not just for themselves, but for their countries and world, if only given the opportunity.