-- The 2016 Summer Olympics came to an end Sunday night with a closing ceremony in Rio that had a little of everything: samba dancers, giant parrots, Simone Biles carrying the American flag, an encore from Tonga's greased-up flag-bearer Pita Nikolas Taufatofua, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe emerging from a huge green warp pipe dressed as Super Mario.
Team USA marched with extra swagger, winning the medal count for the sixth straight Summer Games. The Americans not only led the way with 121 medals, they also led in every medal category ?? gold, silver and bronze ?? for the seventh time in Olympic history and first since 1948.
Doing a great deal of the heavy lifting for America, once again, were the women, accounting for 61 of the country's medals. The men won 55, and five were won in mixed events. That the American women out-?earned the men for a second straight Games is particularly impressive considering that just 44 percent of the medals given out in Rio were in women's events.
From Biles and Katie Ledecky to Claressa Shields and Kim Rhode, the U.S. women absolutely dominated. In fact, if Team USA were divided into separate men's and women's teams, the ladies' 61 medals would be third overall at the Games, behind only the combined men's and women's efforts of Great Britain and China. Their 27 golds would be tied for first with Great Britain.
The success of America's female Olympians is due, in part, to the passing of Title IX in 1972. The law barred discrimination in education, greatly impacting athletic programs for women and girls from collegiate levels on down.
"Title IX paved the way and created so many opportunities for women in sport," nine?-time Olympic medalist Allyson Felix told the United States Olympic Committee. "I feel so proud and so inspired by the strong women on our team. It's such an amazing group to be a part of and I think about all the images of successful women reaching young girls back at home --? those are the things that last."
Indeed, the Olympics are a rare time when viewers take in nearly as many images of female athletes as male. A time when the accomplishments of female athletes are given the same weight as those of their male counterparts. America seemed particularly enchanted with the achievements of the female gymnasts, swimmers and runners, who captured countless headlines and tons of airtime. And if fans wanted to watch events that might not make primetime ??say, women's wrestling or weightlifting ?they could live stream them online. It was the most access viewers have had to Olympic events.
With each medal won, the U.S. women demanded more and more of the spotlight. Yes, sometimes the coverage they received wasn't as winning as their athletic achievements, but even in those moments of misogyny, some progress could be found. Caitlin Kelly, managing editor of Vice Sports, spoke on my podcast about how the strong reaction to the sexist coverage is a win.
"One thing that was ... encouraging was seeing that people are pointing it out," Kelly said. "I think more and more people have the language now to be able to point it out and to be able to discuss why it's problematic and why portraying female athletes in the same way that male athletes have always been portrayed is so important."
"I think there's definitely progress being made," Kelly continued. "People are more aware, maybe, of what we want our sports world to look like. And feel more empowered through social media and have a platform to say what we think people should be focusing on when they talk about women in sports."
On Sunday night, in a sea of Olympians, Biles stood out, despite her 4-foot-9 frame. She was inundated with photo requests from American teammates and athletes from other countries, as well. In a stadium full of literal and figurative giants, a small but powerful female athlete was the star, and the respect her fellow competitors showed her should be an example for fans and media.