Over the last 30 years, the US women’s football team has amassed an impressive series of results in terms of world and Olympic titles. Behind this success lies Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, which ensures women the same rights as men in terms of school and university sports programmes. Donna de Varona, an Olympic swimming champion and Chair of the Organising Committee for the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup, has been well placed to observe this evolution.
Donna de Varona is a major figure in American sport. Two-time Olympic swimming champion in Tokyo in 1964 and a TV sports journalist, she and tennis player Billie Jean King are behind the Women's Sport Foundation, which promotes sports activities for women in the USA. She was Chair of the Organising Committee for the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup and is a member of the IOC’s Women and Sport Commission, to mention just a small part of her amazing career.
“People often ask me why I stopped swimming competitively at the age of 17. I’d beaten 18 world 18 records, won 37 national titles and achieved two Olympic gold medals. All that as a teenager in the 1960s, a turbulent time known for its female pioneers, but not really for girls in swimsuits having much of an impact in terms of achieving lasting change. The answer to the question is quite simple: There was no Title IX in the federal law in my day. High-level women’s university sport, which you can see on TV almost every day now, and which offers a way of getting into the top academic institutions, was not there to help female athletes extend a career at the peak of their physical performance and prowess.”
But all that would change thanks to the Education Amendments Act passed by the US Congress in June 1972, Title IX of which states: “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”
As De Varona explains, “At a time when, in the early 1970s, around 50,000 men went to university thanks to sports scholarships, compared to around 50 women, and at high school, only one girl in 27 practised any kind of sports activity,” the effects of Title IX were considerable in many different areas, and sport in particular, as women were gradually able to benefit from university sports scholarships like the men, and especially make a name for themselves within the NCAA, which organises the national competitions.
Ahead of the Women’s World Cup Final, Donna was invited to be part of a panel within the “Equal Playing Field Summit 2019”, organized by Equal Playing Field held on 5 July in Lyon, which convened thought-leaders, policy-makers, players and programme specialists from the football world to discuss and share solutions on very real challenges. Building safe sport environment, balanced portrayal and embedding human rights in football were only a few of the topics touched up.
Donna explained to the audience how the IOC’s committment to remove barriers that prevent women and girls from taking part and being represented in sport at all levels. In this regard, Donna shared the implementation work of the IOC Gender Equality Review Project, a comprehensive review made up of 25 recommendations under five themes: Sport, Governance, Portrayal, Funding and Human resources. The IOC was also represented in another panel that put a spotlight on the prevention of harassment and abuse in sport. The toolkit developed by the IOC for International Federations and National Olympic Committees on safeguarding athletes was presented and discussed.
Hundreds of thousands of American girls take up soccer
American football and baseball, two of the main sports which form part of the American national identity, are associated with manliness in the collective imagination, which is not the case for football, the number one men’s sport in South America, Europe and Africa, but not the USA. As a result, free of any kind of sexism, hundreds of thousands of American girls started to kick footballs around at high school. “A great sport for girls, with very good coaches; a team sport in which they support each other and create role models,” De Varona explains.
The result was the creation of an amazing talent pool, leading to the showcase of women’s football, the United States Women's National Team (USWINT), the best team in the world since the start of the world’s biggest competitions: the FIFA Women’s World Cup (1991) and the women’s tournament at the Olympic Games (1996).
FIFA created the Women’s World Cup in 1986, after various international tournaments like the “Mundialito” (held from 1981 to 1988), and the first edition was held in the People’s Republic of China in November 1991. It attracted 12 teams, and the US team with superstar Mia Hamm, a product of the university system, won the final against Norway, 2-1. The IOC introduced women’s football at the 1996 Games in Atlanta, with a different rule from that for the men: while the players taking part in the Games all had to be under 23 with just three exceptions, there was no restriction of this kind for the women, who could therefore send the same teams to the World Cup and the Games. The USWNT won the first gold medal in front of 76,000 spectators at Stanford Stadium in Athens, Georgia, beating China 2-1.
A new development with the 1999 FIFA World Cup
There was a very important new development for women’s football in 1999, with the third World Cup held in the United States. “The greatest sporting experience of my life,” says De Varona, who chaired the Organising Committee. “Nobody believed that we could stage a World Cup in the biggest stadiums in the country. But we did.” The Americans faced China in the final at the Pasadena Rose Bowl on 10 July watched by 90,000 spectators and 18 million TV viewers. They won on penalties (0-0 at the end of normal time) thanks to the last successful shot by Brandi Chastain, who is remembered for subsequently tearing her shirt off in an ecstatic goal celebration. New vocations were born in the US following this second global triumph.
Generation after generation, the US women’s teams won at the Olympic Games in 2004, 2008 and 2012, were finalists in 2000 (beaten by Norway in a penalty shootout), and never left the podium until the 2016 Games in Rio, where they were defeated by Sweden in the quarter-finals, again on penalties. Amidst this string of successes, Carli Lloyd made a name for herself by scoring all her team’s goals in the finals in 2008 against Brazil (1-0) and in 2012 against Japan (2-1). Nor did the Americans leave the podium in the World Cup: finalists in 2011, and third in 1995, 2003 and 2007, they won their third world title in Canada in 2015, beating Japan 5-2 with a hat-trick from captain Carli Lloyd in the first 16 minutes of the match, including an extraordinary lobbed goal from the halfway line: she was named woman of the match for that, and voted best player at this World Cup.
In France in 2019, the team of new “made in the USA” soccer superstar Alex Morgan, is once again the favourite of the 24 teams taking part, and Carli Lloyd is there again. After losing in the quarter-final at the 2016 Games in Rio, she said: “You better believe that in 2019 in France, and in 2020 at the Games in Tokyo, we’ll be back to win gold.” Who wouldn’t believe her?
Speaking more generally, De Varona concludes: “On the Olympic stage, American women have continued to dominate, continuing the legacy of their sporting predecessors. During the Summer Games in particular, they do well thanks to the fantastic equipment and training offered by the university sports programmes. Recent studies by Ernst and Young show that 94 per cent of the women in management positions in the top 500 US companies took part in sports competitions, and 50 per cent of them did so at university level. The link between the sports opportunities available and success in later life couldn’t be clearer, and is a powerful indicator of how an effective policy can have an impact on culture, society, the workforce and ultimately the economy as a whole. Title IX released the potential of half of the American population, not only on the field of play, but in all walks of life.”