Women to Watch in the Rio Olympics

August 10, 2016

Thanks, Title IX. This year's team will send more women athletes to the Olympics than any team in history. Learn how Title IX supports women on and off the field.

Every two years, the Olympics ignite fervor, national pride, and competitiveness as the world’s greatest athletes come together. For female athletes in particular, the Olympic Games is a rare opportunity to garner international attention for their performances.

At this year’s Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, women outnumber men on the U.S. team for a second straight games — 292 women to 263 men — setting the record for most ever female Olympians competing for a single nation. Thanks in part to Title IX, the 1972 law combating sex discrimination in federally funded education and athletics, U.S. women have secured greater access to play and compete, thereby expanding their opportunities to succeed athletically at both professional and Olympic levels.

Though women outnumber men on Team USA, they represent only an estimated 45 percent of all competitors this year. With 32 fewer events for women in Rio (169 for men and 137 for women), female athletes also have fewer chances to medal.

In spite of being outnumbered, women at the games will surely make headlines. Here are some talented and fierce women to watch this summer.


U.S. Women’s Soccer Team

By The White House from Washington, DC (P102715LJ-0329) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Image by the White House, via Wikimedia Commons

After their dominating win in last year’s World Cup, the U.S. women’s soccer team is the gold medal favorite in Rio. At the games, they will come to the field not only as players, but also as advocates. Since the World Cup, the team has fought for equal pay and playing conditions comparable to those of their male counterparts (and the U.S. Senate has called on the U.S. Soccer Federation to enforce equality).  Winning gold this year would help solidify the team’s athletic greatness and strengthen their platform for equal treatment.


Laurie Hernandez

Laurie Hernandez may not have the same name recognition as fellow gymnasts Simone Biles or Gabby Douglas, but as a member of the U.S. women’s Olympic gymnastics team, she is a force to reckon with. At 16 years old, the New Jersey native is one of the youngest members of Team USA. She is also the first U.S.-born Latina gymnast since 1984. Nicknamed the “human emoji” for her expressiveness, she is one to watch now and in years to come.


Ibitihaj Muhammad

Ibtihaj Muhammad of the United States at the women's sabre event of the 2013 World Fencing Championships 2013 at Syma Hall in Budapest on 9 August 2013.

© Marie-Lan Nguyen, Wikimedia Commons,

Although Michael Phelps ultimately carried the U.S. flag during the games’ opening ceremony, there were many who hoped it would be Ibitihaj Muhammad, the first American athlete to compete in the Olympics wearing a hijab. Though many sports have strict uniform regulations that make it difficult for wearers of hijab to participate, Muhammad found her calling in fencing. In Rio, she will compete dressed in accordance with her Muslim faith, while proudly representing the U.S. national team.


Saudi Arabia’s Female Delegation

Sarah Attar of Saudi Arabia competes in the Women's 800m at the London 2012 Olympic Games

Sarah Attar of Saudi Arabia competes in the women’s 800 meter round one heats on day 12 of the London 2012 Olympic Games. Photo credit: BRC & Trcanje.rs., Flickr Creative Commons

In 2012, Saudi Arabia brought two women to the London Summer Games. Four years later, the nation’s female delegation has doubled in size. Though four women may not seem like many, women’s participation is a significant feat for a nation governed by Sharia law. Under the country’s religious rules, women are barred from sports, but a special invitation from the International Olympic Committee made it possible for marathon runner Sarah Attar, fencer Lubna Al-Omair, judoka Wujud Fahmi, and sprinter Cariman Abu al-Jadail to compete. They are part of a historic delegation that looks to make history if any of them reach the medal podium.


Caster Semenya

South African Caster Semenya is the favorite in this year’s women’s 800-meter race, but her predicted victory is not without controversy. Semenya’s body produces high levels of testosterone, a fact that some claim gives her an unfair advantage over her competitors. Despite concerns, her participation in the games is a victory for inclusivity and progress, as Semenya will be able to compete as an intersex woman.


Yusra Mardini

Yusra Mardini Syrian Swimmer

Yusra Mardini by United Nations [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

In less than one year, Yusra Mardini has gone from fleeing her war-torn home in Syria to competing in the Olympics. In August 2015, while fleeing to Germany with her sister and other refugees, Mardini’s dinghy broke down. She and her sister, both swimmers, jumped into the water and helped push the boat to safety.

When the International Olympic Committee heard her story, it invited her to join the first Olympic refugee team. This new team, which consists of other stateless athletes who would otherwise be unable to compete, allows people like Mardini to make their dreams of participating in the Olympics come true.


Thanks to Title IX, women have greater opportunities to compete and succeed in sports. But remember that Title IX is more than just athletics! Use the AAUW Title IX coordinator map to locate your local Title IX coordinator and deliver vital resources to help them do their jobs. Then, take the extra step to make sure Title IX and gender equity are adequately funded: Urging your member of Congress to stand up for Title IX and co-sponsor the Gender Equity in Education Act today.

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