As Angel McCoughtry stood on the highest podium Saturday night in London, the United States’ women’s basketball team having just won the gold medal in its fifth straight Olympics, her mind couldn’t help but wander to a different place.
The notes of “The Star-Spangled Banner” rang in the background, the American flag hoisted high above her head. But for just a moment, McCoughtry wasn’t thinking about her country. Instead, she was reminiscing about her childhood and the obstacles she had to overcome, as a woman, to earn her spot on that platform.
“Maybe 20 years ago, people would laugh at you, you know?” McCoughtry said after Saturday’s gold medal game. “I always tell people, the great thing about women’s sports is that it evolves. Women’s sports are like evolution. Men’s sports are already established. Women’s sports are only going up.”
Nothing has proved that quite like the 2012 Olympic Games. American women dominated the competition in London, winning 58 of their country’s 104 medals. Of the 46 U.S. gold medals, women or women’s teams won 29 of them.
It’s a feat that seems particularly fitting, as June 23 marked the 40th anniversary of Title IX, a piece of legislation that granted more equal access to women and girls in sports.
Kayla Harrison, the first American athlete of either gender to win gold in judo, said she felt privileged to take part in a record-breaking Olympics for women.
“It feels amazing to be a part of something that is so much bigger than myself,” Harrison told USA Judo. “To be able to say that I am a strong, confident woman and Olympic champion is amazing, and I hope that we have a million little girls that are inspired right now.”
For the first time, women outnumbered men on the U.S. team, 273 to 261. But the equality wasn’t solely in the numbers. It was showcased every time a woman picked up a rifle to compete in Olympic shooting or entered the ring to participate in boxing, a first-time sport for women in the Olympic Games.
“What I’ve been so impressed with is the range of sports that women are engaged in,” said Laurel Richie, president of the WNBA. “Women are no longer being pigeonholed into certain sports. We can compete in all of them.”
The evolution of women’s sports doesn’t stop at the U.S. border. For the first time, every country participating in the Olympics was represented by at least one woman. Qatar, Brunei and Saudi Arabia, traditionally represented solely by men, had women in their London delegations.
The advancement isn’t significant just to the women of those three countries, but also to women all over the world.
“I think it sends a terrific message,” Ms. Richie said. “It kind of creates a sisterhood where, when we’re involved in athletics and in sports, we know that we’re part of a truly global community.”
Female athletes have been making headlines before the games started. For the United States, they are the most numerous and the most decorated. A woman was the youngest U.S. Olympian, 15-year-old swimmer and gold medalist Katie Ledecky of Bethesda, and the oldest, 54-year-old equestrian team member Karen O’Connor of The Plains, Va.
McCoughtry said she hopes women’s success in athletics someday won’t be newsworthy because of their gender, but because of what they have accomplished. McCoughtry wears her gold medal, a symbol of her Olympic accomplishment, proudly.
She does so not just for herself, but for female athletes everywhere who have fought for their place on the court.
“I remember [growing up] boys would be saying, ‘She can’t be out here playing,’” McCoughtry said. “But I have a gold medal around my neck. And those guys don’t.”
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