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London’s Olympics: The Games that changed everything and nothing

Gabby Douglas. (26890)
Gabby Douglas.

It’s a warm day in West Des Moines, Iowa, a small town in America’s heartland.

Off a main thoroughfare, an unassuming gym sits in a strip mall. People come and go, passing a young woman sitting in a desk chair just inside the gym’s front door, getting her hair and makeup done.

She is Gabby Douglas, and when the women’s gymnastics all-around gold medal was placed around her neck at the London 2012 Olympics, she became an instant superstar.

When we met her at the gym her host family owns, she was busy smiling, jumping and posing for a photo shoot with Seventeen Magazine.

Here, in the middle of Iowa, Douglas continues to work and train, and balance new-found celebrity with everyday life. One year after the 2012 Olympics, it is just one example of how everything and nothing has changed.

The London event was heralded as “the Women’s Games” and for good reason — for the first time, every country and every event allowed women to compete.

Exactly a century after the founder of the modern Olympics said “an Olympiad with females would be impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic and improper,” the International Olympic Committee, or IOC, celebrated the most equal Olympics to date.

Some countries, like the United States and China, actually sent more women than men. And for the first time ever, Brunei, Qatar and Saudi Arabia had women on their national teams.

Saudi Arabia was long seen as the last holdout, its hand eventually being forced by the IOC, which delivered an ultimatum: send women, or face a ban from all Olympic competition.

In a country where women can’t vote until 2015, can’t play sports in public schools, and can’t even drive, the Middle East country had to find female athletes to represent it.

The search turned up two women — Sarah Attar and Wodjan Sharkhani. Attar, a dual citizen of Saudi Arabia and the U.S., grew up in California.

Normally a marathon runner, she was told less than two months before the Games began that she would be running the 800-meter race in London.

“It was definitely a big thought process going into it,” Attar told CNN’s “An Uneven Playing Field” documentary in her first television interview since the Olympics.

“It wasn’t something that I’d been working for, for so long, which so many Olympians do, and essentially it came down to, how could I not go?”

The sight of Attar on the running track dressed in leggings, long sleeves and a special head-covering brought international attention to an otherwise routine 800m heat.

And while she finished dead last, she was celebrated around the world for her historic accomplishment.

But not everyone was pleased with Saudi’s compliance. Back in the kingdom, Attar and 16-year-old teammate Sharkhani faced criticism and threats.

On Twitter, someone started the hashtag “prostitutes of the Olympics” in Arabic, and many wondered if Attar and Sharkhani — who lost her first judo match in less than two minutes — were truly trailblazers, or token entrants.

“It really was a brilliant moment,” says Alison Kervin, sports editor of The Mail on Sunday, and the UK’s first female sports editor of a major British newspaper.

“But when those girls went back to Saudi Arabia and all these other countries, whether that led to girls in their countries suddenly putting on trainers and throwing off their burkas and getting out on the running track, I’m not sure.

“One Games, over two weeks, however wonderful it was, isn’t enough to change the face of women’s sport.”

While the IOC also admits more needs to be done, particularly in getting more women into leadership positions in sport, there is no doubt London 2012 was worth celebrating for most — but not all.

English athlete Samantha Rippington disputes the claim that all the events included women.

She is a canoeist, competing at world championships but not at the Olympics — because her sport is not included. The event of “canoe and kayak” is grouped — allowing the IOC to say all events include women, when technically they don’t.

“It’s very frustrating,” said Rippington. “There’s 36, 37 countries competing or developing women’s canoe around the world, so I know there are athletes who are at standard, who want to race, and are very much capable of racing at the Olympics.”

It shines a light on another inequality at the Olympics — the medal count. At London 2012, men had the chance to compete in 163 events, while the women had only 131 events.

Some events, like boxing, had fewer weight classes available to women, even though women’s international boxing recognizes more than the three chosen for the London Olympic program.

Rippington filed a discrimination claim against the London Organizing Committee last year. And while she wasn’t able to get women’s canoe added to the London 2012 program, she continues the fight for the next Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 2016.

But the women who did get their chance last year took full advantage.

Many of the most memorable faces of the 2012 Games were females — like the UK’s Jessica Ennis, Douglas and her “Fierce Five” teammates, the U.S. women’s football side and Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen.

Despite the challenges that remain, London 2012 provided a foundation for gender equality in sport. It produced countless female role models, heroes, and champions — and for 17 days in time, leveled the playing field.

“It’s the start isn’t it,” said Kervin. “Hopefully we’ll look back in 20, 30 years and remember that first Olympics when it started and then go, ‘Gosh you wouldn’t imagine an Olympics not full of women.’

“So it’s just a start of a very big process, and it was a fantastic start.”

Samantha Bresnahan | CNN