Why Rio 2016 is a major watershed for women in sports

The U.S. is sending more women than men to the Rio Olympic games this year—and more female athletes than any other nation has ever sent in history.

Members of the Australian Women's Rio 2016 Olympic Games Water Polo Team. Matt King | Getty Images

When I was young, I loved going through the boxes that contained my dad’s high-school sports trophies. The bronzed figurines stood on top of their pedestals in full sprint, and I would read the inscriptions, noting the track and field accomplishments that I wanted to ask my dad about when he returned from work.

For a long time, I considered my dad the athlete of the family—after all, he had the wall of trophies. Even though my siblings and I took fencing lessons from my aunt—and even though we knew, just as a part of family lore, that she had competed in the Olympics twice, in 1988 in Seoul and in 1992 in Barcelona—somehow her accomplishments didn’t loom as large in my consciousness as my dad’s did. (Perhaps it was all those trophies, which are impressive to a child.) Because my aunt’s accomplishments were just a rather ordinary part of our family history, I never fully grasped the magnitude of her achievements. She was just Auntie, who loved to take us on bike rides, who taught me how to play Scrabble, and who also happened to be an Olympian.

However, that changed when I was about eight years old and I saw my aunt speak to a group of school children.

“Close your eyes and picture being surrounded by your teammates, with everyone chanting ‘USA! USA!’” she told her audience. “You’re about to walk into the Olympic stadium.”

My aunt was the essence of everything positive about sports

The children in the room, including me, were riveted. A stadium full of people, chanting for her, my auntie? From that moment, my aunt came to represent the essence of sports for me. I understood right then that my aunt was quietly living the life of a serious athlete. She wasn’t flashy about it, but her daily commitment to athletics was a years-long testament to her grit and determination, her pride and strength. True, my dad had boxes of trophies sitting in the basement, but I had never seen him run a sprint.

My aunt, on the other hand, had structured her life around her athletic accomplishments. She coached and worked as a motivational speaker, using her accomplishments as a foundation to spread her message of self-belief and aspiration. As I got older, I appreciated how my aunt’s career gave her the flexibility to have a family and work on her own schedule. Over the years, I’ve realized that she represents everything that athletics and competition can do at its best: build confidence, give freedom, and help define deeper meaning in a life.

I love watching Sunday football as much as anyone else, but we also need to celebrate athletics outside the male-dominated professional arenas.”

But even in 2016, our sports culture is dominated by men. American sports culture is flashy: Billions of dollars of marketing and media go into hyping up the fans for pro sports. Depending on who you ask, America’s favorite sport is football or baseball—but no matter which you choose, you will not see any women on those fields.

However, this year, there are more women than men on the United States’ Olympic team. The 292 female athletes on the team represent the most women ever to compete for a nation in a single game. This is a huge, and, in my opinion, completely under-hyped, accomplishment.

This year, girls will watch the Olympics and see exactly how far sports can take them

On Friday, during the opening ceremonies, girls all over the country will look to the television and see faces and bodies that reflect their own. They’ll applaud women who are strong, healthy and confident. The family members of the 292 female Olympians will have role models who show that sports aren’t a boys’ club any more. And as those women competitors come home, sharing their stories and inspiring the next generation of female athletes, the changes will continue.

Girls under the age of 14 drop out of sports at double the rate of boys, according to the Women’s Sports Foundation. One of the reasons is likely the lack of female role models in sports, making it all the more important for girls to watch female athletes compete at the most elite level in sports from gymnastics to weightlifting—and that we talk about those Olympians to inspire future generations of female athletes.

I love watching football on Sundays as much as anyone else, and know how fun a family outing to the baseball stadium can be. But I believe that we also need to celebrate athletics outside the male-dominated professional arenas. Sports can build confidence and create opportunities for everyone, not just boys and men who are great at tossing or catching a ball.

You can play anything.”

My aunt’s experience demonstrated this to me, and shaped my understanding of how broad the sports world truly is. I knew from her experience that sports could take a woman as far as she wanted to go. That’s a message that more little girls will hear this year, as more women take the spotlight at the Olympics games.

Last fall, I watched my toddler daughter on the playground as the Little League football team practiced on the adjoining field. As she ran toward the slides, the whistle from football practice stopped her.

“See the boys playing football?” I asked. But when the team removed their helmets and pads I noticed with pride that the players weren’t all boys.

“And the girls,” I added, checking my own assumptions about women in sports. “The girls can play football too.”

Then I added, more for my benefit than hers, “You can play anything.”

This year, I’m so thankful for the 292 women on the U.S. Olympic team showing me and my daughter, that her athletic dreams, whatever they might be, are possible.

Kelly Burch
Kelly Burch
Kelly Burch, a freelance writer from New Hampshire, shares stories of family, mental illness, and anything else that catches her interest.

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