August 5, 2012

Melissa Mojica of Puerto Rico had her 82 seconds of fame on Friday, August 3, when she defeated Wojdan Shaherkani in a 78+ kg judo bout. Shaherkani didn’t last long on the mat—small wonder, given that she had never fought in an organized event ever before—but she still was given star treatment. Mojica didn’t last much longer, for that matter; she was eliminated in the next round.

Equally significant, and even shorter, was the Olympic appearance of 100m sprinter Noor Hussain al-Malki of Qatar. She retired after injuring her ankle in the first few steps. Maziah Mahusin of Brunei did finish her 400m heat, the last woman across the finish line and more than six seconds behind the fifth-place finisher.

Even so, Shaherkani, al-Malki, and Mahusin won public-opinion gold medals as the first female athletes to represent their nations. (Saudi Arabia had to be prodded into it by the IOC, and who knows if it betokens any actual change.)

But they are by no means the only women to achieve milestones in London. Diver Paola Espinosa became the first Mexican woman to medal in two Olympics, and judoka Sarah Menezes became the first woman from Brazil to win an individual medal. For the first time, women on Team USA outnumbered men, 269 to 261. Every nation sending a delegation to London includes at least one female athlete—another first.

And, of course, on Sunday, August 5, women’s boxing makes its Olympic debut. It’s now really hard to think of sports that women don’t compete in at the international level. Women’s cricket is on the rise. Women’s American football, too. And, no, I’m not talking about the Lingerie Bowl. The International Federation of American Football held a World Cup in Stockholm in 2010. Six nations fielded fully clothed and properly padded teams.

Here are a few Olympic milestones for women:

The first recorded Olympics were held in 776 BCE. Women were excluded from participating, and, as the events were held naked, there’s no disguising the fact. Even so, in 396 and 392 BCE, a Spartan princess named Cyniska won Olympic laurels because she owned the horses that won a chariot race. She was not allowed to collect her prizes in person at the stadium.

At the 1896 Athens Olympics, a woman named Stamata Revithi wanted to run in the first ever marathon but was turned away by race organizers. She ran the same course the following day, finding witnesses along the way to verify her achievement and time (5½ hours). But she was barking up the wrong Olympic tree. IOC founder Pierre Baron de Coubertin was a staunch opponent to women’s participation in vigorous sports. “It is indecent that the spectators should be exposed,” he once said, “to the risk of seeing the body of a woman being smashed before their very eyes. Besides, no matter how toughened a sportswoman may be, her organism is not cut out to sustain certain shocks.”

Fortunately, many of the events at the first games were determined by the host countries, and the organizers had less sexist views on the matter. On May 22, at the 1900 Paris Olympics, Switzerland’s Hélène de Pourtalès became the first woman to win a gold medal as part of the crew of Lérina, a yacht in the one-to-two-ton sailing event. Tennis player Charlotte Cooper of Great Britain became the first female individual gold medalist at the same games.

Five track-and-field events for women were added to the Olympics for the 1928 Amsterdam games: the 100m and 800m sprints, the 4x100m relay, the high jump, and the discus throw. Because of the exhaustion of some of the athletes at the end of the 800m final, the event was dropped from subsequent games, not to be reinstated until 1960. Other distance races were added gradually thereafter until the appearance of the women’s marathon in 1984 and the 10,000m in 1988.

Individual women’s gymnastics events were introduced at the 1952 Helsinki games and the USSR’s Maria Gorokhovskaya became the woman winning the most medals at one Olympics with two gymnastic golds and five silvers.

Avery Brundage, the last de Coubertin disciple to head the IOC, retired in 1974, after which, not coincidentally, the number of women’s events at the Olympics grew rapidly. Women’s basketball was added in 1976; the first of three women-only events in Olympic history, synchronized swimming, debuted at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics (the other two are rhythmic gymnastics and the now-defunct softball); women’s shooting events appeared in 1984; judo went co-ed in 1988; football in 1996; weightlifting in 2000; and this year, boxing. And women’s boxing may have it’s first international star in Marlen Esparza, a charismatic, intelligent, pretty flyweight (and pretty fly) Latina from the Houston area with a steel jaw and vicious right.

You’ve come a long way, baby, indeed.

*

The best match of the men’s football tournament was Mexico’s 4-2 thriller against Senegal. Giovanni dos Santos scored the winner eight minutes into overtime—he had also contributed to El Tri’s other two goals to that point. Without question, the man of the match, of the entire tournament to this point for Mexico. “Wow, that was a difficult game,” was all coach Luis Fernando Tena could say.

Brazil, on the other hand, played a lackluster match against Honduras. Los Catrachos took an early lead, but went down to 10 men after 33 minutes. Don’t cry for them, Tegucigalpa—being physical against the more talented squad was part of their game plan against Spain (six yellows) as well as Brazil (six more), and they paid the price. La Seleçao overcame one-goal deficits twice and went up on Leandro Demaio’s second goal of the match. Honduras just would not go away, earning various excellent scoring chances late in the game. Then Roger Espinoza, who scored los Catrachos’ second goal, was sent off in the injury time for his second yellow card. As my mother used to say, Este arroz ya se coció. (This rice, she is cooked.)

Adíos, Honduras. I’ve loved our time together. See you in Brazil in 2014 and/or 2016.

Argentina hasn’t won a medal yet at these games. (Is there some sort of Falkland/Malvinas mojo coming back to haunt them?) Juan Martín del Potro will get a shot at Novak Djokovic and the bronze today at Wimbledon. Also in tennis, Serena and Venus Williams go for their third women’s-doubles gold today. (They won in Sydney in 2000, and last time in Beijing.) If they do, they will pass the great Latino tandem of Gigi and Mary Joe Fernández.

Erick Barrondo García won Guatemala’s first Olympic medal ever on August 4, taking silver in the 20K racewalk. In V as in Victor’s July 27 issue, Guatemalan-American novelist Francisco Goldman said, “If a race walker wins [Guatemala’s first medal], I’ll just laugh. Cruelly … It would be so typical if Guatemala’s first ever medal was in race-walking. Give me a break.”

Francisco also said that he wasn’t rooting for his native country to win a medal because he wouldn’t “want to give [right-wing president] Otto Pérez Molina any opportunity for nationalist chest-thumping.” I’m sure Francisco is gnashing his teeth at the fact that Pérez Molina is already planning the parade for when Barrondo returns to Guate.

“Girl Power,” by Bill Vourvoulias.

From “Girls Got Game,” the August 5, 2012, issue of V as in Victor.

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