Walking down London’s famous The Mall, Erick Barrondo’s head swiveled from side-to-side searching for his nearest opponent. As it turned out he was 30 seconds behind and the mixture of astonishment and ecstasy on the walker’s face revealed history in the making―Guatemala’s first Olympic medal.
The fact that it was silver was immaterial. In a sport-mad country where every weekend the roads are packed with pickups transporting entire soccer teams to games, to win a medal at the Olympics for the first time since they started competing in 1952 was an incredible achievement.
Although soccer remains the most popular sport in the country, the national team has yet to reach a World Cup final. After years of heartbreak, the population is looking to new sports to find their national hero and may have done so in the 21-year-old Barrondo. To show their patriotic fervor, local Olympic broadcaster Albavisión replayed the entire race twice just after the live one had finished.
Speaking to reporters after the end of the 20-kilometer race, Barrondo said, “It is well known that Guatemala has problems with guns and knives. It is a country that has suffered much, but that also has dreams. If somebody tomorrow changes a gun or a knife for a pair of shoes and begins to train for a sport, I would be the happiest person on earth”.
For the first time in history, every country competing in the London 2012 Olympics will have at least one female athlete, with many – notably in Latin America – achieving gender parity among their delegations. As a symbol of women's increasing presence in Latin America, half of the athletes carrying Latin American flags in tonight's opening ceremonies will be women. Argentina, Bolivia, El Salvador, Mexico, Chile, Colombia, Venezuela, Costa Rica and Peru have selected female athletes to represent their teams. Overall, the number of women athletes competing in this summer's games exceeds the number from Beijing 2008.
This is no isolated trend. "The peak of women in sports in Latin America coincides with the increase in women's participation in the social, political and economic life of the region," said Fernando Segura Trejo, a sports sociologist at the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas (Center for Research and Teaching in Economics) in Mexico. "Women have not only reached the highest positions of administration, including various presidents, they have gained tremendous ground under the yoke of many decades of oppression and restriction of rights that today seem natural." The latest issue of Americas Quarterly, released yesterday, looks at the progress women have made in politics and business in the region, while noting that they are far from parity in leadership positions in political, corporate and judicial systems.
Women have made huge strides in sports in the United States and other countries as well. Forty years after Title IX legislation was passed in the U.S., opening the door for more equal participation of girls and women in educational and athletic activities, a majority of U.S. Olympic athletes are women, 269 to 261. Russia's team, which is nearly as big, also has a majority of female athletes. And Saudi Arabia, notorious for restricting women's rights, is sending its first two women to the London Games. These advances have led some media and Olympics watchers to call the 2012 games the "year of the woman."
Despite these achievements, not all are celebrating. Representatives from various European women's groups met in London on Wednesday to call for an end to gender discrimination at the Olympics, with women's rights campaigners criticizing the fact that women will compete in 30 fewer events than men in the 2012 Games, and only 132 gold medals are available to women compared to 162 for men. Moreover, even as women are participating in sports in increasing numbers, they still lag behind their male counterparts in pay (prize money and sponsorship), media coverage and allocation of financial resources to support their training and facilities.
The United States Under-23 Men’s National Soccer Team failed to qualify for the 2012 London Olympic Games on Monday, after tying El Salvador in a must-win match in Nashville, Tennessee. A victory would have advanced the Americans to the semifinal round of the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF) regional qualifying tournament, but an injury-time goal from Salvadoran striker Jaime Alas in the 94th minute ended the U.S. Olympic hopes.
The Americans were hoping to bounce back from a rare 2-0 defeat at the hands of Canada on Saturday and appeared to have the advantage against El Salvador early on when Terrence Boyd scored after only 61 seconds. But El Salvador, with the support of half the 7,889 fans in attendance, came from behind twice to secure a tie and claim the top spot in Group A. La Azul y Blanco will face second-place Canada on March 31 in Kansas City, and a victory would earn the Central American nation its first Olympic berth since 1968.
With the World Cup defeat to Ghana still fresh in the minds of American soccer fans, elimination from the Olympics is yet another disappointing performance for a team striving to prove itself on the world stage. “I’m sorry for the fans,” said U.S. Under-23 Coach Caleb Porter, “and I’m sorry for U.S. Soccer, that we didn’t get the job done.” The loss also hurts the Americans’ chances looking forward to the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. The rising stars of the Under-23 team, some of who will become part of the U.S. World Cup squad in 2014, are missing out on a rare opportunity to represent their country in international competition.