The Olympics are a huge, sprawling event, and every time they happen, I struggle to decide what to make appointment television. But this year, I want to keep tabs on six women. Not all of them have shots at medals, though a number of them do. But I’m excited to see them compete, not just because they’re tremendous athletes, but because they’re sparking important conversations about women’s participation in sports in the first year that every country competing in the games will be represented by both women and men, and that the United States is sending more female athletes to the games than men.
1. Sarah Robles: We’re pretty psyched that our petition inspired online ad company Solve Media to sponsor Robles, the strongest woman in the United States. And as much as it’s unfortunate that Robles had to get by on $400 a month, the news that she was sponsorless sparked an important conversation about which Olympians get financial support and public attention, and why. Plus she’s funny and classy on questions of sexism and her career. But most importantly, she’s unbelievably, mind-blowingly strong. We can’t wait to see her overpower the competition.
2. Gabby Douglas: The 16-year-old from Virginia Beach has lived away from her family for two years to train for the Olympics. And while she isn’t favored for All-Around gold in London, she’s in the hunt, beating favorite Jordyn Wieber in the trials that got them both spots to the games. Olympic gymnastics have traditionally been dominated by American and Eastern European teams and individuals, and the number of women of color who have picked up individual gold medals in gymnastics is small: Chinese gymnasts He Kexin on uneven bars and He Wenna on the trampoline in 2008, Lu Li on the uneven bars in 1992, Ma Yanhong on the uneven bars in 1984, Hong Un Jong, who picked up North Korea’s first Olympic medal with a gold in the vault in 2008. No black woman’s ever taken home an individual gold medal in Olympic gymnastics (Douglas is the first African-American on the American women’s team since 2000), and it’ll be exciting to see if the immensely likable Douglas can be the first.
3. Sarah Attar and Wodjan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani: Saudi Arabia’s done everything it can to downplay the fact that the International Olympic Committee required the country to send its two female Olympians—Attar in the 800-meters, Shahrkhani in judo—to the London games, including not reporting their inclusion on the team in state-sponsored media. And some commentators have suggested that the regime will use their participation as a distraction while it cracks down on women’s rights in other arenas of Saudi life. But the Olympics are about celebrating the best that every country has to offer, even if the country itself doesn’t recognize the talents and aspirations of its own people. We should cheer Attar and Shahrkhani as a way of praising a vision of Saudi Arabia where female athletes like them don’t have to pursue their dreams abroad.
4. Khadija Mohammed: Just 17 years old, Mohammed defied cultural expectations and history to become the first woman from a Gulf state to qualify for Olympic weightlifting, and the first woman from the United Arab Emirates to qualify for the Olympics without needing to receive an invitation from the IOC. Her family’s been publicly supportive, and unlike Saudi Arabia, so has the head of the UAE’s weightlifting federation. And while this has been a challenge in other sports, like soccer, Mohammed will be able to wear a one-piece uniform that covers her hair after the International Weightlifting Federation approved the new styles. It’s a nice reminder that participation is the key goal here, not participation on purely Western terms. Mohammed isn’t expected to contend for a medal this year, but it’s only the beginning of her career.
5. Yelena Isinbayeva: One of the reasons women’s gymnastics has met with some criticism is the youth of the competitors, and the fact their careers are over so early. Isinbayeva, who was considered too tall to be a gymnastic competitor, switched over to pole vault, where she’s broken her own world records again and again. Whether she can recover from two tough years on the competition circuit and a break is one of the big, exciting questions in the track and field competition this year. But whatever the results are, Isinbayeva is an astonishing athlete, and a reminder that young female gymnasts need not be stuck as little girls in pretty boxes.