For women, greater Olympic stardom

From the moment the lithe, blonde saber champion Mariel Zagunis of Beaverton, Ore., stepped into London’s Olympic spotlight as flag bearer for the American team, most of us knew that, wherever their uniforms were made, women this year would play a vital role on that red, white and blue team. The slogan began as a whisper and grew to an incantation. This, we were told, is the “Year of the Women,” and Olympic women had shining new territory to explore.

Zagunis seemed ready to start that exploration before another tide rolled up the Thames.

As an Olympic gold medalist, the 27-year-old woman stood as strong as tempered steel among her friends and competitors. Zagunis’ presence there in the shadow of London’s bedecked bridges and towers wasn’t just to claim equality. It was to demonstrate achievement for all to see. She was an Olympian come once again to prove her worth.

Make no mistake. Zagunis had plenty of company. More than 200 countries had indicated they were sending women to the Summer Games. Some of the nations who committed to field female athletes had never done so before. Some, such as Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan, were moving their cultures forward, across centuries, in one leap. The time to do so had arrived.

At the same time, first-world nations were by no means exempt. On the American team led by Zagunis carrying the flag, women outnumbered men. Not by much, just a handful, it’s true, but the gender lead was there. And the women we’re talking about knew they were forging important change. As media reporters began to label the London Games “the Year of the Women,” one Afghani athlete – a woman – declared of some in her country, “They think I’m wrong but I’m not wrong.”

And other women among the many competing – and watching – agreed.

America’s female competitors left it largely to others to argue about what they were wearing and where their uniforms were made. They had their eyes on Olympic medals for achievement from the moment they stepped on to the soccer field against France before the official opening ceremonies began. And they didn’t waste the view. American women know how to win at soccer and they proved it yet again in that opening game.

As with most Olympic coverage, all this can easily get too rah-rah – for countries and for genders. And that can quickly add a sour note to the proceedings. So, too, can trumped-up competition between genders. The glory of the Olympics is that they allow people of superbly developed skills to share the wonder of what they’ve done with the rest of us. Sometimes it happens on skis. Other times it occurs in a pool. Often it has to do with speed and strength and relentless drives to exceed. That’s part of the glory of the Olympic Games, whether they unfold in front of us in winter or summer.

Even politics is not immune. It can share and even magnify the glory. This time it is Ann Romney, wife of Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney, who links the Olympics to our presidential election. She does so as part owner of a competitor you’ll never find in the bleachers or cozying up to the snack bar – it’s Rafalca, a much-admired dressage horse. Rafalca, for the record, is a mare.

Ultimately, it’s what carries over from the Olympics that’s likely to count most in assessing these summer games. My grandchildren are very attuned to sports – two girls and one boy, all baseball players, soccer players, good with golf clubs and convinced sports are vital in powering their lives.

They got that idea from the Olympics and developed it, like Olympians do, on their own. For that, Grandma has been looking at London’s Olympic Games, which are part of the process, and saying, “Thanks.’’

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