It's a golden age for American women at Games

ERIC GAY / Associated Press

At a news conference Saturday, Ashton Eaton, the Olympic decathlon champion, sat next to fellow U.S. gold medalists Brenda Villa, Kayla Harrison and Missy Franklin. A question was posed to all the athletes and a chivalrous Eaton said, "Ladies first."

He got that right.

Women have won 27 of Team USA's 41 gold medals and 54 of its 95 total medals.

What better way to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the passage of Title IX, a federal law that prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender, than for the U.S. women's water polo team -- whose veteran star, Villa, had to play on her high school boys' teams because there were no girls' programs -- to win its first gold?

"Does it give me an extra smile?" Villa said. "It does."

The American women came to the 2012 London Olympics hungry to succeed and delivered a historic performance.

They have sparkled in prime time, with Gabby Douglas claiming the all-around gymnastics title and the soccer team defeating archrival Japan in the gold-medal final. Led by Franklin, they dominated in the pool. Led by Allyson Felix, they shone on the track. They won golds in basketball, soccer, water polo and beach volleyball.

Even in traditionally male domains such as boxing and judo, they have led the way.

"Absolutely I'm thrilled to see how women have done," said Harrison, who won her weight division in judo. "It feels amazing to be part of something so much bigger than myself."

Women represent a record 44 percent of the nearly 11,000 athletes here. It is the first time that every nation brought at least one female athlete, with the International Olympic Committee pressuring Qatar, Brunei and Saudi Arabia to open their previously all-male teams. Traditional powers such as China and Russia have had their medal counts boosted by women.

But no team has benefited as much as the Americans.

It started on the Saturday after the Opening Ceremony, with the first of a string of medals in swimming. Then shooter Kim Rhode won a gold in skeet shooting, becoming the first American to win individual medals at five consecutive Games.

Day after day it continued, including on Saturday, when two of the Olympics' biggest dynasties struck gold for a fifth consecutive time -- the U.S. women's basketball team and the U.S. women's 4x400 relay team.

At the 1972 Munich Olympics, American women accounted for less than 24 percent of the team's total medals. By the 1992 Barcelona Games, their share had jumped to almost 41 percent.

With one day remaining in London, it stands at 67 percent.

Not that everything is quite equal between the sexes in London.

The public fascination with the curves and overall appearance of female athletes can obscure their accomplishments, a reality addressed by both Harrison and Franklin.

"I think that our society puts a lot into ... how they look and what they wear or how they dress, and I think that being a strong female competitor is the best thing we can do to fight that," Harrison said. "It doesn't matter how we look; we just won the gold medal. It doesn't matter what we wear; we're part of Team USA."

Franklin, a teen who won four gold medals and a bronze in swimming, said athletes have better things to think about than their appearance.

"As women competitors, I don't think we're concerned with any of that stuff," she said. "I think we're concerned with our sport and what we've trained to do."

Over the last two weeks, the American women have sensed all those eyes watching them on television back home. They wonder if their success might plant seeds for a repeat performance two or three Olympics down the line.

"To be able to say I'm a strong, confident young woman and an Olympic champion is amazing," Harrison said. "And I hope we have a million little girls who are inspired right now."

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