The Top Ten Women of Rio 2016
For someone who’s pretty much allergic to most sports (watching or playing), I love the Olympics. At its best it can be a wonderful showcase for some really exciting and under-appreciated events, as well as demonstrating where hard work and determination can get you. I love trying to make sense of how anyone can do what gymnasts do with their bodies, the simple thrill of following a race and, of course, cheering on my home nation. This year’s Olympics has not disappointed in terms of sporting achievement (particularly if, like me, you’re a Brit), though the stench of misogyny has followed the female athletes down to Brazil in terms of reporting. From referring to a gold medallist only as some guy’s wife to a newspaper billing a woman’s record-breaking swim below Michael Phelps’s silver medal, coverage of this year’s Olympics has not managed to fully level the playing field in terms of respect and recognition. In response to that, I’d like to remind everyone of just some of the standout women of Rio 2016 and what they’ve achieved. Because, when you take away the problematic reactions, you realise that these women are nothing short of the best humanity has to offer.
1. Simone Biles
I had to start with Simone Biles, because this woman is undoubtedly one of the superstars of the Rio Olympic Games across any sport. Her medal tally at this Games (4 golds and 1 bronze) made her the most decorated American gymnast in history. This is only one of the many records that this woman has broken, and she’s only 19. Her floor routine was literally jaw-dropping, and her effervescent personality shines through whenever she’s competing. Oh, and she can jump to twice her own height. No wonder she carried the US flag at the closing ceremony.
2. Simone Manuel
Simone Manuel’s gold medal in the 100m freestyle was not just an amazing swim, but a historic one. Manuel’s win made her the first black woman ever to take home a gold medal for an individual swimming event. With her win, Manuel was able to add a positive chapter to America’s race relations story: she won for a country that used to prohibit African-Americans from using pools at all. And it wasn’t just one gold she won either: she also took silver in the 50m freestyle and the 4 X 100m freestyle relay, along with another gold in the 4 X 100m medley, an event she has set world records in.
3. Ibtihaj Muhammad
In a political moment where Islam has become the scapegoat for all the world’s wrongs, Muslim women have inevitably suffered the worst of the abuse. With their clothing being policed and ridiculed more every day, women like Ibtihaj Muhammad serve as a fitting reminder that if they have their freedom and pride they can achieve amazing things. Muhammad has made history as America’s first hijab-wearing Olympian, winning a bronze in the women’s team fencing as well as competing as an individual. She is open and eloquent about her pride as a Muslim women and an American, reminding certain political figures in her country (any guesses who?) that a Muslim woman is not someone to be mocked and abused, but to be applauded.
4. Katie Ledecky
If you want to talk about records at the Olympics, American swimmer Katie Ledecky has not only broken them, but smashed them into the ground (or rather, pool). In the 800m freestyle Ledecky not only won the gold, and not only won the gold whilst breaking a world record, but won it 11 seconds ahead of the silver medallist. 11 seconds. Considering that races normally have hundredths of seconds in them should put this in context. Along with this, her other wins made her the most decorated female athlete at a single Olympics. Oh, and she’s 19 too.
5. Elaine Thompson
Jamaica is a nation that has completely dominated sprinting events for years at the Olympics, and with the focus on Usain Bolt you’d be forgiven for thinking that this was only among the men. Oh hell no. Elaine Thompson managed to secure herself the gold in both the 100m and 200m sprint this summer, beating the world champion Dafne Schippers in the 200m and her own legendary teammate Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce in the 100m. The latter deserves special mention too, for managing to secure a bronze after an injury-plagued year in an event she has previously won gold in at both Beijing and London.
6. Fu Yuanhui
I don’t think I’d ever heard anyone mention menstruation at any sporting event ever until Fu Yuanhui came along. In one of the most notable interviews of the Games, Yuanhui told a reporter that she was bent over due to the pain of period cramps after her team’s placing 4th in the 4 X 100m medley. She didn’t use her menstruation as any kind of excuse though, going on to tell the reporter that “this isn’t an excuse, I still didn’t swim well enough”. Her words were celebrated in her native China for being taboo-breaking, and it is certainly refreshing to see a female athlete acknowledge this biological process without disgust or shame. Yuanhui also showed herself to be an extremely bubbly and fun presence in interviews, proving that sporting greatness does not require a personality removal.
7. Majlinda Kelmendi
Simone Manuel wasn’t the only woman to make history at this Olympic Games: judoka Majlinda Kelmendi became the first athlete to win a medal for Kosovo. This was the first time that the country had had representation as an independent nation at the Olympics, making Kelmendi’s gold in the 52kg judo all the more significant. Her win shows the world what can come from nations who have experienced oppression and violence.
8. Yusra Mardini
A swimmer who formed part of the Olympics’ first ever refugee team, Yusra Mardini is an 18 year old originally from Syria. Already a competitive athlete representing Syria in the World Swimming Championships, Mardini was forced to flee the country a year ago due to the horrific civil war. As many reporters have noted, she was one of the four people who got out and pushed the dinghy she was escaping to Greece in when it was at risk of capsizing. For three hours. She took this incredible ability with her to Rio, winning her first 100m butterfly heat and highlighting the strength and power of refugee women like her around the world.
9. Laura Trott
An inspiration to Brits and cyclists everywhere, the Rio Olympics saw Laura become the first woman to appear in the list of most decorated British Olympians of all time. Born prematurely with a collapsed lung and later diagnosed with asthma, Trott took up sport as a way to help regulate her breathing. Many medals, titles and records later, she has overcome any physical issue to become one of the greatest cyclists, and athletes, of all time.
10. The British Women’s Hockey Team
OK I realise that this isn’t one woman, and that my British bias is showing again, but this team of superstars is really worth the adulation. Upping their medal colour from the bronze of London 2012 was never going to be easy for the British team, particularly considering the competition from world champions the Dutch, who had achieved golds in the last two Olympics. But consistently brilliant teamwork, combined with the talents of players like goalkeeper Maddie Hinch and captain Kate Richardson-Walsh, meant that the team stormed to a victory that British hockey hadn’t seen since 1988. Richardson-Walsh was also part of the first married couple to win gold for Britain since 1920 with her wife Helen. For a team where some members are holding down jobs or studies at the same time, that ain’t bad.
As is always the case with lists like this, there are so many more who could’ve been added on; South African 800m gold medallist Caster Semenya for prevailing against ignorance and vitriol; Ethiopian 10000m gold medallist Almaz Ayana for smashing the world record with her winning run, and 5000m runners Nikki Hamblin and Abbey D’Agostino for helping each other finish their race after falling over each other are just some examples. In essence, despite whatever sexist traditional and social media tried to do to ruin things, the Rio Olympic Games served as yet another showcase for the phenomenal things women all over the world can do.
And we haven’t even had the Paralympics yet.