U.S. Female Olympians Outshine Most Countries

The London Olympics are over but there is a remarkable statistic left behind. If American women had competed as their own country, they would have tied for third in the gold medal count, and finished fifth in total medals.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Well, the London Olympics are now over, but here is a remarkable statistic left behind. If American women had competed as their own country, they would've tied for third in the gold medal count and finished fifth in total medals. They won a record number of gold medals and far more medals overall than American men. That's one reason that, in London, these games will go down as the women's Olympics. Here's NPR's Howard Berkes.

HOWARD BERKES, BYLINE: American women won 29 of the nation's 46 gold medals and 58 of 104 medals overall, producing indelible images. Boxer Claressa Shields with her arms raised high in victory. Tearful Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh with hands over their hearts on the beach volleyball medals stand. And backstroker Missy Franklin looking from the pool to the scoreboard and seeing the number one.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Winner of the gold medal and Olympic champion, representing the United States of America, Missy Franklin.

(APPLAUSE)

BERKES: Franklin said it was long and hard hours in the pool that made her the most-decorated woman of the London Olympics, with four gold medals and a bronze. But there's also growing participation in sports inspired by Olympic success in the past. Brenda Villa spent the last four Olympics winning medals with the U.S. Women's water polo team, which won its first gold here in London.

BRENDA VILLA: There's more young girls playing water polo. They grow up to want to be an Olympic water polo player. So awareness and just we've been more visible since, I guess, Beijing, so more girls playing at a younger age. I think that's what's helped in our case.

BERKES: The United States Olympic Committee says the American women's medal count in London is due in part to Title 9, the 40-year-old federal law that prohibited gender discrimination in school sports. Scott Blackmun is the U.S. Olympic CEO.

SCOTT BLACKMUN: Title 9 really gave us a head start because of our really national commitment to make sure that young women in particular were getting the opportunity to be involved in sports. So it's something that we're proud of, but I think, you know, the rest of the world is clearly, you know, doing the same thing at this point. So we're glad we got ahead of the curve.

BERKES: Success for American women also attracts unwelcome attention. A New York Times story said 100 meter hurdler Lolo Jones is in the spotlight not because of athletic achievement but because of her exotic beauty and marketing. Jones, the Times story declared, had a slim chance for a medal. She actually finished fourth, just a tenth of a second behind the bronze medalist. But winning medals doesn't shield women from scrutiny that has nothing to do with athletic achievement.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: On the floor representing the United States of America, Gabrielle Douglas.

(APPLAUSE)

BERKES: 16-year-old Gabby Douglas made history as the first African-American woman to win the individual gymnastics all-around, but became the target of social media scorn because of her hair. The treatment of Douglas and Jones prompted this from Kayla Harrison, the first American ever to win a Judo gold medal.

KAYLA HARRISON: I think that our society puts a lot into women and sometimes how they look or what they wear, how they dress. And I think that being a strong female competitor is the best thing we can do in order to sort of fight that. You know, it doesn't matter how we look when we win the gold medal. We just won the gold medal.

BERKES: American women aren't alone in winning more medals than male teammates. The Chinese and Russian medal winners are also mostly women. The London Olympics were the first to feature women in every sport. But women don't compete in 30 events in those sports. There's pressure for full gender equity, which might only increase the Olympic gender gap.

Howard Berkes, NPR News, London.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMERICAN GIRL")

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