Female stars move into main spotlight
But gender gap still plays a role, with more events for male athletes
From the dizzying heights of US gymnast Simone Biles to Indian wrestler Sakshi Malik and Brazilian golden girl Rafaela Silva in judo — Rio proved a groundbreaking Games for women.
Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps had already arrived in the host city as global superstars of athletics and swimming, but newcomer Biles’ amazing acrobatic skills also won star billing with her record-equaling four golds and a bronze at her first Games.
The 19-year-old became the second African-American after Gabby Douglas in 2012 to win the all-around title, ending the Games in the spotlight by carrying the US flag at the closing ceremony.
“I’mnot the next Usain Bolt or Michael Phelps,” the Texan said. “I’m the first Simone Biles.”
Despite the shining success of Biles, a gender gap remains, with 169 events for men in Rio compared with 137 for women.
But the Games still had many firsts, with judoka Majlinda Kelmendi winning Kosovo a gold at its maiden Games and Monica Puig giving Puerto Rico tennis gold.
“I just proved that even after we survived a war, if they (children in Kosovo) want something they can have it,” Kelmendi said.
Silva, 24, who grew up in a violent, poverty stricken Rio slum, won special mention from IOC president Thomas Bach as the Games drew to a close.
“Rising from the favela to become Olympic champion, when you look at her childhood and what she had to overcome, she’s an inspiration across the world,” Bach said.
Malik also told how she had to overcome prejudice to become India’s first medalist with a bronze in freestyle wrestling.
The 23-year-old from Rohtak, 76 kilometers northwest of New Dehli, said her parents were criticized when she started wrestling.
“I want to say that girls can also do a lot if you give them confidence,” said Malik, who carried the Indian flag at the closing ceremony.
Women from the Middle East were more represented than ever before in Rio.
Weightlifter Sara Ahmed, wearing a sports hijab, blazed a trail by becoming the first woman from Egypt to stand on the podium, lifting 255kg to finish third.
Ines Boubakri won the Arab world’s first ever women’s Olympic fencing medal, dedicating her bronze to “the Tunisian women, the Arab woman ... who has her place in society”.
US fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad succeeded in her ambition to show the world that Muslim-American women could compete in elite sports.
The 30-year-old from New Jersey, the first US Olympian to wear a hijab — the headscarf worn by Muslim women — during competition, won bronze in the team saber event.
Saudi Arabia’s Kariman Abul jadayel, one of four women athletes sent by the conservative kingdom to Rio, competed in the 100m sprint.
I want to say that girls can also do a lot if you give them confidence.” Sakshi Malik, Indian wrestler
Emirati swimmer Nada Al Badwawi, who carried her country’s flag at the opening ceremony, said: “We are slowly starting to change the mentality. My main goal is to break down these gender barriers and pave the way for other female swimmers.”
Forty five percent of the 11,444 athletes — 5,175 — in Rio were women, slightly higher than at London 2012.
“Every national Olympic committee has now sent female athletes to the Games,” an IOC spokesman said.
New sports such as weightlifting were added to the women’s program in 2000, wrestling in 2004 and boxing in 2012.
The target for Tokyo in2020, where baseball, softball and karate will be contested, is to make even more events open.
However, Yuriko Koike, governor of the Japanese host city, said it will be difficult to change mentalities in Japan.
“Women are doing fantastic performances in the world of sports, in the world of politics,” said Koike.
“Unfortunately, the percentage of women parliamentarians is lower in Japan than in other major places.
“Hillary Clinton talked of a glass ceiling. I think we have got an iron ceiling.
“Along with Olympic athletes, Japan’s female politicians will also take up the challenge and strive to become good role models.”
Clockwise from top: Monica Puig of Puerto Rico celebrates winning tennis singles gold; Ibtihaj Muhammad of the US poses with her bronze medal from the saber team competition; Rio’s own golden girl Rafaela Silva who won in judo; Kosovo’s Majlinda Kelmendi salutes the crowd after winning the under-52kg judo to claim her nation’s first-ever gold medal.