The barrier-breaking began with star American soccer player Megan Rapinoe, who came out as gay before the Games began. In doing so, Rapinoe not only became one of the most prominent out athletes in American sports, she also gave fans an opportunity to examine the fact that, even though it may have been easy for Rapinoe to come out, being a gay female athlete isn’t as easy as we often make it out to be.
Then there’s Gabby Douglas, the affable gymnast with a trillion-dollar smile who became the first woman of color to win an individual all-around gold medal. In an American sports world where race sometimes seems irrelevant, Douglas is an African-American woman who dominated a lily-white sport — one that is so expensive that her mother had to take on extra work and sell “almost all” of her jewelry to keep her daughter in training. Douglas, at least for the American crowd, has become the darling of the Olympics, and her success will undoubtedly provide an avenue for African-Americans into gymnastics and other niche Olympic sports, a road paved by the likes of Dominique Dawes and others before her.
The story of the games, however, is Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani, the first Saudi woman to ever appear in the Olympics. Shahrkani’s Olympic dream lasted just more than a minute, but those 82 seconds shattered cultural barriers that will, hopefully, make it easier for Saudi women to play the games they love. ‘‘I am happy to be at the Olympics,’’ Shahrkani said after her judo match, according to the Associated Press. ‘‘Unfortunately, we did not win a medal, but in the future we will and I will be a star for women’s participation.’’
The stories of the Olympic woman hardly stop there. Female athletes from various countries and in numerous sports are proving that they belong not just in the Games but at the forefront, and the barriers to female participation seem to crumble a little more on each new day of competition.
There are, of course, still issues facing women in sports both at the Olympics and elsewhere. Shahrkani’s story aside, women are still largely prohibited from playing sports in Saudi Arabia. There are still huge socio-economic barriers preventing athletes from backgrounds similar to Douglas’ from making it to the Games. Unlike Rapinoe, too many women find it impossible to open up about their sexuality in the world of sports. Female athletes often still lack the notoriety and sponsorships that are more common for men, and sexism is still rampant both at the Olympics and in sports.
But these women and others are bringing those barriers down, making the world of sports a more open and equitable space for females of all shapes, colors, nationalities, and sizes. Because of that, it isn’t hard to imagine the London Olympics going down as an Olympiad remembered for the triumph of the Female Athlete.