“I tried to reach toward them,” Richardson said, her recollection still vivid after all these years. “It was such a meaningful thing. Everyone really appreciated the athletic talent they were witnessing, no matter the gender. That, to me, encapsulates the 1996 Olympics.”
About a generation removed from the passage of Title IX, which vaulted American women toward a more level playing field with the men, the Atlanta Olympics served as a coming-out party for all the progress that had been made toward gender equity.
Everywhere, it seemed, the U.S. women were shining. Basketball. Gymnastics. Soccer. Softball. “If we weren't training or playing games, we were just watching the Olympics,” Julie Foudy, a member of the first team to capture an Olympic gold medal in women's soccer, told The Associated Press in an interview this week. “We spent a lot of time cheering on the other women's teams, the other females, the other U.S. athletes. We quickly realized that we were crushing it."
Even now, with nearly a quarter-century having passed since the '96 Summer Games, the impact of those magical 2 1/2 weeks is still being felt. Rebecca Lobo recalls seeing girls and boys wearing commemorative jerseys that were sold for the first time with the names of U.S. women's players stitched on the back. It was certainly a group worth emulating, with Lobo and four other future members of the Basketball Hall of Fame.
“Those Olympics certainly had an impact on the opportunities that are there for girls to play," Lobo said this week. “And in an even bigger way, you have to look at the impact it had on the boys who were wearing those jerseys. Did it have an impact on the way they looked at women and, now that they're adults, on the way they treat little girls today? I'd like to think so.”
Several factors came together to create the perfect storm for the emergence of women's sports in Atlanta: — Title IX had been passed in 1972, so a whole generation had grown up with more opportunities to participate in sports, which was especially meaningful on the team level. “I've heard them referred to more than once as the Title IX Olympics,” Richardson said.
— The International Olympic Committee had been making strides toward gender equity, and that effort took a big step forward in Atlanta. More than 800 additional female athletes competed in 1996 compared to the previous Summer Games in Barcelona. It remains the biggest jump at a single Olympics in the number of women competitors.
— A big part of that increase could be attributed to new sports and disciplines approved by the IOC. Softball became part of the Olympics for the first time. A women's tournament was added to soccer. Both wound up being two of the most popular sports at the Atlanta Games.
Women's basketball had been a part of the Olympic program since the 1976, but the mighty U.S. squad — a Dream Team featuring Hall of Famers-to-be Lobo, Dawn Staley, Lisa Leslie, Sheryl Swoopes and Teresa Edwards — really captured the imagination of the home country.
They won eight straight games by an average margin of nearly 29 points. After playing their first two group games at a tiny college gymnasium, they moved over to the mammoth Georgia Dome, which had been divided with a curtain to provide a pair of arenas for basketball and gymnastics.
A record crowd of 33,952 turned out to watch a 20-point blowout of Australia. In the final, the United States romped to a 111-87 victory over previous unbeaten Brazil before 32,987 red, white and blue fans.
On the other side of that curtain, the U.S. captured its first team gold medal in women's gymnastics with a group that became known as the Magnificent Seven. In one of the games' most enduring moments, Kerri Strug clinched the gold by sticking her final vault on an injured ankle, which led to her being carried to the medal stand by her coach, Bela Karolyi.
But women's gymnastics had long been a popular sport at the Olympics. A more significant impact was provided by the U.S. teams that captured the inaugural gold medals in softball and women's soccer. Richardson, who had once been told she would have to cut her hair and pretend she was a boy in order to play baseball in the pre-Title IX era, helped the heavily-favored Americans bounce back from a shocking loss to Australia in the round-robin phase to win the gold medal.
“We kept getting bigger attendances with each game," Richardson said. “Then, for the gold medal game, I heard they were scalping tickets. For softball! Can you imagine that?” It was a similar story for the U.S. soccer team, which played group games as part of doubleheaders with the men because organizers weren't sure enough fans would turn up for the women. They needn't have worried. When the medal rounds were held at Sanford Stadium on the University of Georgia campus, the women had the stage all to themselves.
More than 64,000 turned out for the semifinals. The gold medal game, in which the Americans defeated China 2-1, drew a crowd of 76,489 that would have fit right in with a Georgia Bulldogs football game between the hedges.
The women's tournament in Atlanta served as a precursor to the wildly successful Women's World Cup held three years later in the United States. Meanwhile, the popularity of the basketball team led to the formation of not one, but two new women's leagues. The WNBA is still around today, perhaps the most lasting legacy of the 1996 Games. A new softball league also launched after Atlanta, but it didn't last. Sadly, softball was dropped from the permanent Olympic program after 2008, though it will make a return as one of the optional sports added for next year's Tokyo Games.
Looking back on those 1996 Games, Lobo chuckles at the memory of her team walking to the court for a game at the Georgia Dome, just as the Magnificent Seven was on its way back to the locker room after competing its competition.
“They were giving us high fives and we were giving them low fives,” Lobo quipped. “You had some of the biggest, tallest women in the Olympics, and some of the shortest women in the Olympics going by each other.”
All of them stood tall in Atlanta.
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