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.

Gen­der bar­ri­ers

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

‘Iron ceil­ing’

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.

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