Miscellaneous / News

London 2012: The Legacy of Female Athletes

Image courtesy of Nick J. Webb.

By: Shannon Clarke

With the 2012 Olympic Games officially over and the competitors flooding back to their respective countries, many will ask what the legacy of London will be.

One thing is for sure: these Games will be remembered for its female athletes.

It’s been an incredible 16 days for women at the Olympics – historic and inspiring for young females around the world burdened by the “tom-boy” label when all they really want is to be considered athletes. Or for women’s sports teams that are underfunded and poorly promoted by institutions that are more than happy to pump millions into their male counterparts. And for those who do “make it pro,” very few will make anywhere near the same amount of money in salary or endorsements as men.

Despite these hurdles, female athletes have emerged stronger than ever at the London Games.

So, to counteract all the news items about Ryan Lochte’s grill, here are some of the best moments for women at the Games this year:

1. Sheer numbers

For the first time in history China, Russia, the United States and Canada sent more women than men to compete at the Olympics. It was fitting, then, that Emilie Heymans and Jennifer Abel won Canada’s first of nineteen medals on Day 2 in synchronized diving. Heyman is the first Canadian to win a metal in four consecutive games. Rosannagh “Rosie” MacLennan also has the distinction of being Canada’s only gold medal winner at these Games, winning for trampoline.

2. Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei

All three countries sent women to the Olympics for the first time. Sarah Attar and Wojdan Shaherkani represented the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia in track and judo respectively. Qatar sent sprinter Noor Al-Malki and hurdler Maziah Mahusin represented Brunei.

3. Wojdan Shaherkani

Wojdan Shaherkani’s presence at the Olympics was a huge victory, not only for the women of her country, but for Muslim athletes around the world who wear the hijab. In the weeks leading up to the competition Olympic organizers and judo officials argued that Shaherkani’s headscarf would pose a choking hazard, but Saudi officials and Shaherkani, 16, refused to compete without it. They finally agreed on a design that would allow Shakerkani to compete and cover her hair.

4. Women’s boxing

The sport was finally introduced to the Olympics this year, making 2012 the first year in history that women have competed in all Olympic sports. Claressa Shields, 17, of the United States won the gold.

5. Paula Findlay

She was expected to win, but when Paula Findlay crossed the finish line Canadians saw an athlete in tears. Findlay broke down in front of cameras while apologizing to her family, friends, supporters and fellow Canadians for coming in last. After suffering from serious hip injuries more than a year ago, Findlay, 23, remained determined to compete in London. Canadian triathlete Simon Whitfield later slammed Findlay’s team for minimizing her injuries and failing to modify her training program. Some argued that she should not have competed. Despite the exhaustion and pain, Findlay finished the race. The strength and courage it took for her to continue on, and to show up at all, made Canadians and all female athletes proud.

6. Ye Shiwen

It was a stunning race that immediately drew speculation and cynicism from coaches and journalists alike. Shiwen, 16, of China, swam her way to gold at incredible speed – 58.68 seconds – not only far ahead of her competitors, but (gasp!) faster than Ryan Lochte. Though she tested negative for performance enhancing drugs, Shiwen’s achievement has been overshadowed by allegations of fraud.

Writer Sarah Keenan of the blog Half in Place, deconstructs the sexism and racism behind the criticism, writing:

“It has to be asked why it is that when a young Chinese woman wins an event in a white-dominated sport, white men the world over feel both the need and entitlement to prove that she must have either been cheating or that she’s subject to a tortuous training regime unthinkable in the liberated west.”

7. Zoe Smith vs. Twitter

Female athletes were not only battling their competitors in London, but also their spectators around the world who couldn’t resist commenting on their bodies. Zoe Smith, an 18-year-old weightlifter from England, fired back at Twitter bullies who said her muscular frame made her “unfeminine.” Not only did Smith coolly respond on her blog, but she also left the Olympics having broken a British record by lifting twice her body weight.

8. The Fierce Five

While the Internet was busy swooning over the American men’s swim team the women of Team U.S.A. were going to work on the track, tennis court and the mat. Dubbed the Fierce Five (originally the Fab Five, but that was already taken) the United States’ gymnastics team took home three gold medals, the most ever at the Olympics, led by Aly Raisman and Gabby Douglas, who each won individual gold medals.

9. Gabby Douglas

At just 16, she is a two time Olympic gold medalist and household name and for good reason. Douglas is the first woman of colour to win gold for the women’s all-around gymnastics competition. She also does not care what you think about her hair.

10. Team Canada Women’s Soccer Team

Heartbreaking. Devastating. Incredible. There were a lot of words used to describe the showdown between Canada and the United States on the soccer field, one that ended in a 4-3 loss for Canada. The Canadians, led by Christine Sinclair, 29, did not make the win easy. The American women scored the final winning point in extra time.

Facing possible suspension for arguing with the referee, the Canadian women went on to defeat France in another stunning match. They earned the bronze, but it felt like gold. No Canadian team had won a medal in a traditional summer team sport since 1936 in Berlin.

By the time the women walked off the field last weekend, a campaign had begun to make Sinclair, who scored all three goals against the United States, Canada’s flag bearer at the closing ceremonies. She was given that honour morning of the ceremonies.

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