The United States brought home more gold medals than any other country at the Rio Games this summer. As has become usual, the U.S.’s excellence owes much to the success of American women.
In Rio, the U.S. women shined with 61 of 121 medals, including 27 out of 46 golds (59 percent). The U.S. was also atop the medal table at the end of the previous Summer Games, in London, and women were responsible for more than half the gold medals that year as well.
If we take into account that women have participated in fewer events than men in all modern Summer Olympics — and therefore competed for a smaller number of medals — the divide between men and women looks even more drastic. In 19 of the 26 Summer Olympic Games in which American men and women fought for medals,1 the women won a greater share of the available gold medals than the men did. That’s right — if there were a gold medal for who performed better in the Olympics, women would bring that one home too.
Worldwide, more women than ever are competing in the Olympic Games: In Rio, around 45 percent of the athletes competing were women, and women’s events accounted for 47 percent of the 306 total. Of those 145 gold medals available for women, the Americans took 27 of them (19 percent). The U.S. men, meanwhile, won gold medals in 19 of the 161 male events that took place in Rio (12 percent). In the 2012 Games, the U.S. women took 29 of the 140 available gold medals (21 percent) while their male counterparts took 17 of the 162 available gold medals (10 percent). This has been the trend in most Summer Olympic Games, which leads to this inescapable conclusion: The only thing limiting the success of American women at the Olympics is the number of events available to them.
Naturally, this brings us to Title IX, which was passed into law in 1972 and prohibits discrimination against girls and women in federally funded educational programs, including sports. The share of U.S. gold medals won by women at the Summer Olympics dipped in 1976, but with the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, the U.S. women began a rapid ascent into equilibrium with the U.S. men:
The International Olympic Committee hopes to achieve an equal number of male and female events and athletes at the 2020 Summer Olympics, being held in Japan. That’s good news for everyone, but considering recent history, perhaps even better news for Team USA.