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Notable Women at the London 2012 Olympics - The Famous and Infamous

These Female Athletes Stood Out at 'The Women's Olympics' by Paying it Forward


Notable Women at the London 2012 Olympics - The Famous and Infamous

Gabby Douglas

© Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
Updated August 14, 2012
When the world looks back on the London Olympics, odds are the 2012 Summer Games will be remembered as "the women's Olympics." From the International Olympic Committee's success in pressuring longtime holdout Saudi Arabia to allow women athletes to participate to the addition of women to the Brunei and Qatar teams, London 2012 went down in the history books as the first-ever Olympics to feature female Olympians representing every nation.

For those in the United States, NBC's coverage of the Olympics was heavy on U.S. medal wins, chest-thumping and athletes who brought honor to the red, white and blue. But many women around the globe won victories big and small that went far beyond personal achievement. They advanced the status of women through notable accomplishments that didn't always result in medals or honor.

The following women Olympians all played significant roles in the 2012 London Olympics. Some names may be household words and others unfamiliar, but each took us forward in their minutes or seconds on the international stage of athletic competition.

China's Child Prodigy: Ye Shiwen

When China's Ye Shiwen shattered the world record in the women's 400-meter individual medley -- swimming faster in the final 50 meters than U.S. gold medal winner Ryan Lochte in his final leg -- she shaved off so much time (5 seconds) from her previous best that the initial reaction from commentators was skepticism, not celebration. China's long history of women swimmers testing positive for illegal performance enhancers fueled speculation that doping was behind Shiwen's wins. But with no evidence of any illegal substances, London 2012 is only the beginning of Shiwen's career as a swimming prodigy. At age 16, she has at least two more Summer Olympic games to look forward to.

Boxing's Golden Girls: Taylor, Shields and Adams

The 2012 Olympics were the first games to include women's boxing, although they limited competition to just three weight classes: flyweight, lightweight and middleweight (compared to the 10 weight classes men could compete in.) Twenty-three nations sent 36 female boxers and all of them made history. Gold medal winners included 26-year old Katie Taylor from Ireland in the lightweight class (60 kg); 17-year-old Clarissa Shields from the U.S. in the middleweight category (75 kg); and Nicola Adams, a 29-year-old middleweight British boxer who won in the flyweight (51 kg).

Saudi Arabia's Trailblazers: Shaherkani and Attar

"Trailblazers" may be a bit of a misnomer. While two women were allowed on the Saudi Arabian team, both are anomalies. Judo competitor Wodjan Shaherkani honed her skills largely in the privacy of her own home under an expert teacher -- her father. The other Olympian, runner Sarah Attar, is a lifelong Californian; but thanks to dual U.S./Saudi citizenship, the 19-year old Pepperdine University student was allowed to represent her father's homeland. Falling short of qualifying, both were given wild cards spots and knew their participation was largely symbolic . Attar came in dead last in her race and in competition, Shaherkani lasted less than 90 seconds. While spectators in London celebrated both Olympians with cheering and applause, back in Saudi Arabia there are no plans to promote women's sports or even allow physical education for girls in schools. Yet Attar and Shaherkani's presence at the London Olympics made it a milestone event in women's sports.

Defying Stereotypes: Rapinoe, Suryani and Partyka

Singling out these three twentysomething women is problematic because in a perfect world their personal "characteristics" would attract little attention. But what they have in common is the willingness to stand up to stereotypes. U.S. soccer player Megan Rapinoe, 27, is gay;  29-year-old Malaysian shooter Nur Suryani Mohd Taibi is 8 months pregnant; and Natalia Partyka, a 23-year-old table tennis player from Poland, is one-armed. Rapinoe publicly came out just prior to the London games, telling Out magazine, "Sports in general are still homophobic, in the sense that not a lot of people are out." Suryani (as she prefers to be called) is the most pregnant Olympian ever to compete and admitted to feeling her baby kick while shooting. Partyka, playing in her second Olympics after winning two gold medal in the 2004 and 2008 Paralympics, regards her disability as "nothing." All three are outstanding role models who prove there's no barrier in sports a woman can't overcome.

South Africa's Gender Ambiguous Runner: Caster Semenya

While acceptance of gays and lesbians in sports is growing, individuals who are transgendered or intersexed still face tremendous stigmas. That's the rocky road facing female South African runner Caster Semenya who was subjected to physical tests and banned from the sport for 11 months after winning the world title in 2009. At the London Olympics some accused her of throwing the 800 meters race and settling for the silver in order to avoid the scrutiny that would have come had she won the gold. While the results of her previous tests have never been made public, Sports Illustrated speculates that the tests "reportedly showed that while Semenya has external female genitalia, she has internal testes, no womb or ovaries and elevated levels of testosterone. This means that she has what doctors call a disorder of sexual development, and has some traits that are typically associated with women and others that are typically associated with men.”

U.S.'s 'Team Title IX': More Women, More Medals

If the U.S. went home wrapped in glory and with the biggest share of gold medals of any nation on the planet, we have the "little ladies" to thank (said with tongue firmly planted in cheek.) More females made the U.S. Olympic team than males, and 29 of the 46 gold medals brought back were won by women. As USA Today noted, "Were U.S. women their own nation, they would have finished ahead of every other country's total gold medal count except China and tied Great Britain." Whether they know it or not, gymnast Gabby Douglas and swimmer Missy Franklin benefited hugely from a law that went on the books decades before they were born -- Title IX, which sought to correct inequities in women's access to sports and higher education. Now 40 years old, Title IX has enabled the U.S. to dominate the London Olympics and from here on out, anything is possible.


Brennan, Christine. "American women rule the London Olympics - now what?" USAToday.com. 13 August 2012.

Epstein, David. "Pregnant Nur Suryani Mohd Taibi leaves London with a special record." SportsIllustrated.CNN.com. 28 July 2012.

Kaufman, Michelle. "Table tennis standout Natalia Partyka excels despite disability." MiamiHerald.com. 2 August 2012.

Portwood, Jerry. "Fever Pitch." Out.com. 2 July 2012.

Thomas, June. "Did Caster Semenya Lose the Women's 800 Meters on Purpose?"Slate.com. 11 August 2011.

Thompson, Nick. "Ye Shiwen's 'unbelievable' swims are talk of Olympics." CNN.com. 1 August 2012.

Waldman, Katie. "Why Weren't There any Heavyweight Women's Boxers at the Olympics?" Slate.com. 10 August 2012.

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