The U.S. women’s soccer team captured its third consecutive Olympic gold medal in thrilling fashion Thursday, avenging its World Cup finals loss to Japan at London’s legendary Wembley Stadium. The gold added to the already-impressive Olympics for America’s women, who are now on pace to win more medals than they ever have at a single Games. American women are carrying the U.S. Olympic team: entering Friday, they are responsible for 26 of the team’s 39 gold medals with more likely to come, and they have outpaced every other country’s women on the medal leaderboard.
The 2012 Olympics, the first in which the U.S. team has had more women than men, happens to coincide with the 40th anniversary of Title IX, the landmark law that granted women equal access to education and sports. That may seem coincidental, but it’s not: Title IX and the commitment to equality that followed is what made the success of America’s female athletes possible.
Without Title IX, many of the women on America’s Olympic team may not have made it to London, and others would have taken paths with many more hurdles along the way. In the U.S., female participation in sports has increased 545 percent at the college level and nearly 1,000 percent at the high school level since Title IX passed in 1972, and it has led to opportunities for female athletes that did not exist years ago.
Take Abby Wambach, the star forward for the women’s soccer team, as an example. Wambach played her college soccer at the University of Florida, which added a women’s soccer program specifically to comply with Title IX. “I like to tell people, ‘Title IX gave me a national championship ring,'” Wambach told ESPN earlier this year.
She’s not alone. Before Title IX passed, few women received college athletic scholarships. There are now more than 200,000 women playing sports at American colleges and universities. Those women largely play low-revenue sports like basketball, track and field, soccer, and volleyball — all sports where American women either have or will win medals, most of them gold.
Title IX hasn’t been perfect: there is still a significant participation gap between male and female athletes in America’s high schools and colleges, and there is a funding gap too. As women’s sports have become more prominent, the number of coaching jobs occupied by females is at historical lows. And the sports world is far from equal in the way women are treated and portrayed by the media.
But the implications of Title IX are clear, even acknowledging those challenges. As America’s Olympic women have shown us, it has been successful, so much so that other countries are now devoting resources to expanding female access to sports. Increasing female participation in sports improves educational attainment, employment opportunities, and the health of our women. Title IX’s success shouldn’t just be celebrated, it should be replicated in other parts of our society, especially given the lack of political will that exists — at least within one party — to give women the same level of equal access to compensation and health care that we’ve given them in sports.