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Year Of The Woman At The London Games? For Americans, It's True

Every nation that sent a delegation to the London Games sent at least one female athlete — a first for the Olympics. This year's Team USA has more female than male athletes — and the women have won nearly twice as many medals: 100 total medals, by my count, to 59 for the men.

So yes, it looks like this is the Year of the Woman at the Olympics, particularly for the United States.

A glance at the medals board shows that while Michael Phelps sits atop the standings with six medals (four gold), the other golden boy of U.S. swimming, Ryan Lochte, was outperformed by Missy Franklin and Allison Schmitt. And while all three of those swimmers have won five medals, Franklin took four golds, and Allison three, to Lochte's two.

We've noted that Saudi Arabia sent female athletes to the games, and that they made history by representing their country in the judo and track categories. That's a milestone for the Olympics, which strongly urged nations that don't usually send women to the games to give female athletes a chance to participate this summer.

By contrast, the U.S. team sent more women than men to Britain for the 2012 Summer Games — 268 women to 261 men, for a total of 530 athletes. And the American women cover the full age spectrum, from the oldest — equestrian Karen O'Connor, 54 — to the youngest, gold medal swimmer Katie Ledecky, 15.

Compare that to 2008, when the U.S. sent 596 athletes to Beijing. That team was composed of 310 men and 286 women. For 2012, the shift can partly be explained by soccer and field hockey. The American women are competing in both of those events, while their male counterparts are not.

Still, it's possible that Team USA is at the leading edge of a trend. The International Olympic Committee said Thursday that 44 percent of the athletes competing in London are women. As the AP reports, as recently as the 1984 Los Angeles Games, "women made up only 24 percent of participants."

But the American women are doing far more than showing up, there to balance the numbers and make the Olympics feel inclusive. They're winning — pulling in medals hand over fist.

And as a result, some folks have even been forgetting to add "women's" before saying "soccer" or "beach volleyball" when discussing those sports. That's how completely the American women's teams have come to be identified with them. We can only wonder if that will ever happen in boxing, where Claressa Shields won the sole U.S. gold medal in the sport.

So, the American women have proved that they belong among the world's elite athletes. What'll happen to all these great athletes when they come home? Women's pro sports leagues have struggled in the U.S. — witness the flameout of the Women's professional Soccer league, even after the U.S. women's team won fans with their dramatic 2011 World Cup run.

But all may not be lost for America's accomplished female athletes; they can try to capitalize on their good showing, and pay for their training, by signing endorsement deals. And there, they may have an edge over male Olympians.

"Women make a lot more than men do" in the endorsement game, said Evan Morgenstein, CEO of PMG Sports, in an interview on Marketplace this week.

"I've always been able to make female athletes that have basically all the skill sets, accomplishments, the looks that you need for Madison Avenue to fall in love with you ... make them two or three times what a male athlete with a similar type of accomplishment would make," he told Kai Ryssdal.

"Easily," Morgenstein added. "And that happens only in the Olympics."

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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