Toccara Montgomery, red, Olympic wrestling team

(WOMENSENEWS)–The summer Olympics opening tomorrow in Athens promise to make some notable contributions to women’s sports history.

While women’s wrestling and women’s saber fencing make their Olympic debut, a 47-year-old female tennis legend will become the oldest player–male or female–to compete for the U.S. Olympic team. Meanwhile, two Afghan women have broken down their country’s Olympic gender barrier and will be part of Afghanistan’s reentry into the games after an eight-year hiatus.

“In terms of (women’s) participation, we are very close to parity, about 44 percent women this year,” said F. Patrick Escobar, vice president of grants and programs at the Los Angeles-based Amateur Athletic Foundation, an organization dedicated to youth sports programming and education.

Though women are still far behind when it comes to sports management, coaching and administrative positions, Escobar said that women’s athletic achievements “send a clear message that they are major stakeholders in the world of sports.”

Saber Makes Introduction

For fencing fans, the addition of the saber sword–the modern version of the slashing cavalry sword–will add a new spark to the female side of the sport. Men have traditionally competed in foil, epee and saber, while women competed in only foil and epee.

Three of the five women on the 17-person U.S. team will compete in the saber category. Sada Jacobson, 21, of Dunwoody, Ga., is currently ranked No. 1 in the world, the first American woman to hold that title. Her sister Emily, 18, is No. 10 and Mariel Zagunis, 19, from Beaverton, Ore., is No. 11.

Many in the sport say the say the new saber event is long overdue. “Fencing has really been a bastion of European male dominance,” said Cindy Bent-Findlay, media relations representative for U.S. Fencing. “Women’s foil has been part of the games since 1924, but (the other styles) have been pretty slow in coming.”

Bent-Findlay said that while the International Olympic Committee has been pressing for gender equity, it has also been trying to prevent the games from getting much larger. Despite the inclusion of women’s saber, the committee set a strict limit at 10 overall fencing events, at the expense of two fencing team events: women’s saber and women’s foil. Women athletes in those two categories will only compete individually.

The committee’s decision divided the fencing community. Supporters of women’s fencing argued that if cuts must occur, they should affect men and women equally, such as the elimination of one men’s event and one women’s event. But men far outnumber women in fencing, and influential decision makers within fencing organizations around the world were unwilling to agree to the removal of any men’s events, said Carla-Mae Richards, director of technical programs for the U.S. Fencing Association. The compromise that resulted was bittersweet for female fencers: women’s individual saber was in, but at the expense of women’s team foil. In the future, Richards said, a less controversial solution might lie in some sort of co-ed combination of team events.

Women’s Wrestling Breaks New Ground

While women’s saber fencing enhances an already well-recognized Olympic sport, women’s wrestling breaks altogether new ground and has stirred as much controversy as it has curiosity. Among the oldest of all sports, wrestling has long been regarded as exclusively male. This is especially true in the United States, where only two states–Hawaii and Texas–have made it a high school sport for females and only six colleges offer women’s varsity wrestling.

The four members of the women’s Olympic team have had to deal with skepticism not only from the general public, but also from those within their own sport, said Terry Steiner, the women’s freestyle head coach. He said there are still strong divisions among members of the National Wrestling Coaches Association, who filed an unsuccessful lawsuit in 2002 alleging that Title IX was harming male college athletes by cutting men’s sports instead of seeking gender equity by adding women’s sports. The organization continues to petition for legal review of Title IX.

There is also a fair amount of opposition from many high school male wrestlers and their families, who don’t like the forced male-female competition resulting from the scarcity of high school girls teams. Steiner argued that that controversy would end if enough young women joined the sport to fill their own teams.

Steiner himself hesitated when he was first offered the coaching position in April 2002. Normally women wrestlers were always second in line, he said.

“I was told I’d have to be not only their coach, but also their advocate,” Steiner added, “and I didn’t know if I was willing or able to do that.”

He told Women’s eNews that he accepted the offer after his wife reminded him that she grew up at a time when girls’ basketball was viewed as a similarly “crazy” idea.

“I realized this is very real,” he said of his team’s pioneering role in the sport. “I’m fully committed.”

From a group of 60 young women nationwide who participated in the Olympic trials in Indianapolis in May, four were chosen: Patricia Miranda, Tela O’Donnell, Sara McMann and Toccara Montgomery.

Steiner and other supporters hope that the high-profile debut of the women’s team will have a trickle-down effect within the sport.

“We’re taking almost a backwards approach,” Steiner said. “We hope after the Olympics women’s wrestling influences down to the smaller, local levels.”

“But wrestling fights for survival at every level,” he added, speaking of the sport’s diminishing viewership and participation over the years. With the novelty and appeal that women might bring to the sport, he said, “it could be that women’s wrestling ultimately helps save men’s wrestling.”

Navratilova Makes Olympic Debut

Young blood isn’t the only way to invigorate attention to the games and the U.S. women’s tennis team may fire up sporty older women.

Joining a group of five tennis all-stars, Martina Navratilova will be making her Olympic debut at age 47 to play doubles with Lisa Raymond, 30, also an Olympic first-timer. The other team members, all in their 20s, are Venus Williams, Serena Williams, Jennifer Capriati and Chanda Rubin.

Navratilova has been playing professionally since 1973, and her victory tally includes 18 Grand Slam singles titles, 39 Grand Slams doubles titles and a perfect 40-0 record as a member of the U.S. Fed Cup team. On June 21, when she beat 24-year-old Catalina Castano, she became the oldest woman since 1922 to win a singles match at Wimbledon.

“Martina goes about everything at 100 miles an hour,” said Zina Garrison, the U.S. Olympic women’s tennis coach, at the U.S. Olympic Committee media summit in New York City in May. “Her body looks like a 25-year-old, easily.”

Afghan Women Compete for First Time

Perhaps even more daunting than age and sexual stereotypes are the obstacles facing the women on Afghanistan’s Olympic team. The country last sent athletes to the games in 1996, just weeks before the Taliban took the capital city of Kabul. The international Olympic Committee suspended Afghanistan from the Olympics in 1999, citing a list of grievances, including the country’s ban on female competitors.

This year marks the first time that Afghan women will compete for their country, and the weight of that responsibility falls on the shoulders of just two women: Friba Razayee, 18, who will compete in judo, and Robina Muqimyar, 17, who will run the 100-meter sprint. Razayee and Muqimyar will compete alongside a wrestler, another sprinter and a boxer, who was the only member of the Afghan team to qualify for the games. The rest were invited by the International Olympic Committee.

Years of war have robbed Afghan athletes of most training facilities and the Olympic team lacks sufficient funding. Since June 26, the team has been training on the Greek island of Lesvos, thanks to the efforts of the Greek Rescue Team, an aid group. The sportswear company, Adidas, has provided them with clothes and equipment.

The country has never won an Olympic medal, and few expect that to happen this summer, given the team’s limited time to train and lack of competitive experience.

Robin Hindery is a recent graduate of the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, and a writer for Women’s eNews in New York City.

For more information:

Athens 2004 Olympics Official Site:

The U.S. Olympic Team Official Site:

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