Four years after the United States established itself as the most powerful nation in women's sports at the Summer Games in Atlanta, that dominance is under attack. Strides made by countries attempting to mimic the Americans' success and recent difficulties encountered by elite U.S. women's teams threaten to end America's reign in women's sports at the 2000 Games in Sydney, Australia.
The U.S. women won team gold medals in basketball, soccer, softball and gymnastics in Atlanta, spurring unprecedented publicity for female athletes and leading to the trumpeting of 1996 as the Year of the Woman by some U.S. media outlets. These athletes represented the first generation of women to grow up entirely under the umbrella of Title IX, the uniquely American 1972 law that requires federally funded institutions to provide equal support to men's and women's athletics.
As the 2000 Olympics approach, none of the '96 champions appears heavily favored to win the gold again when the Games begin in Sydney on Sept. 15.
"America is being hunted in women's sports right now," Women's Sports Foundation President Nancy Lieberman-Cline said recently.
Since the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, the number of female athletes has more than doubled at the Summer Games. As more sports are offered, and more attention is paid to female athletes, nations that for years considered sports unladylike and all but ignored their women's programs have begun investing in them. Though smaller nations can't match the financial and population resources in the United States, countries on the cusp of success have poured even more money into women's athletics, hoping to unseat the U.S. champions and replicate their popularity.
"This is going to be our biggest challenge ever to date," said U.S. soccer player Carla Overbeck.
Furthermore, the Americans' problems go beyond the improvement of their competitors.
Since becoming America's darlings by winning the prestigious Women's World Cup last summer, the U.S. soccer players have endured a coaching change, a contentious contract dispute with the U.S. Soccer Federation and a brief strike.
The U.S. women's basketball team is a victim of its own success: The gold medal helped spur the formation of a women's professional league, whose season will cut into the U.S. team's practice time this summer.
The governing body of U.S. women's softball, the Amateur Softball Association, lacks the funds to support its star players year-round, so most of the players are scattered around the country, splitting their time between amateur leagues, weeklong camps every month and other professions.
The U.S. women's gymnastics team, which has always been strong in individual events but had never won the team gold medal before 1996, has finished sixth at the past two world championships.
"This is the most exciting time I've ever been here, because we are challenged," said U.S. women's gymnastics team director Kathy Kelly, who has been with the program for 15 years. "We begged (the gymnasts) to step to the plate and swing the bat."
Olympic organizers sold more tickets for women's sporting events in Atlanta than were sold for the entire Barcelona Olympics four years earlier. The number of female competitors increased by 36 percent, from 2,708 in 1992 to 3,685 in 1996.
At the conclusion of the Games, pitcher Lisa Fernandez, one of the top players on the gold-medal winning softball team, stood outside a well-known night spot in Atlanta wondering how to get inside. The line out the door was long and entries appeared to be restricted.
National Basketball Assoc. superstar Scottie Pippen--a member of the U.S. men's team--was being escorted in when someone shouted: "Those women played on the Olympic softball team!"
Pippen whisked them inside, NBA star Charles Barkley greeted them at the door, Washington Wizards guard Mitch Richmond approached to offer congratulations and several NBA Olympians asked for autographs. Fernandez said she and her teammates felt like stars.
And then she realized: They were stars.
The flood of attention came with impeccable timing: It happened the summer before the 25th anniversary of Title IX, which is considered responsible for providing athletic opportunities to American women that, until recently, have been unrivaled worldwide. Even before the 1996 Olympics, the United States was considered a powerhouse in women's sports, matched only, perhaps, by the mighty teams fielded by the former Soviet Union. The Atlanta Games provided the stage--not to mention the home-field advantage--for the United States to display its preeminence.
Within a year after the Games, a professional women's softball league and two pro women's basketball leagues--one of which has since folded--got off the ground. The first athletic shoes featuring female athletes hit store shelves and product manufacturers expanded the range of sports gear specially designed for women.