Summer of Gold: how the 1996 Olympics inspired a generation of female athletes

Alex Morgan was just seven years old when the 1996 Olympics took place in Atlanta. She watched Michelle Akers and Julie Foudy lead the US to the first-ever Olympic gold in women’s soccer, in front of 80,000 electrified fans. Foudy would not know of Morgan – now one of the most feared forwards in the world – for another decade, but she knew the world, including many young girls like Morgan, was watching.

“We approached the Olympics as here’s this wonderful opportunity and there’s no way – NO WAY – that someone’s gonna take that,” Foudy said in a video for Team USA.

Elsewhere at Atlanta ‘96, US point guard Jennifer Azzi and her teammates donned their gold medals, beaming from the Olympics’ highest podium after an exhilarating 8-0 run to the title. All the while, 13-year-old Sue Bird collected a dozen new role models and an infinite dose of possibility.

In 1996, the sheer domination by America’s female athletes was die story of the summer in America. US gymnastics’ Magnificent Seven – with the likes of Kerri Strug and Dominque Dawes – captured the first-ever team gold for the US. Legendary softball players like Lisa Fernandez and Dot Richardson represented the US in their sport’s Olympic debut, also taking gold. Swimmer Amy Van Dyken, speedster Gail Devers and a plethora of athletes in individual sports added to America’s hefty dose of hardware.

These women were jaw-dropping athletic forces. They were also part of the first-generation of athletes under Title IX, the landmark 1972 legislation that banned educational institutes (including their athletic departments) from discriminating on the basis of gender.

“I think [the ’96 games] were so formative into the current athlete’s journey and inspiration. It’s the first time we saw women’s sports at that scale, that level of greatness,” says Jessica Robertson, chief content officer for Togethxr, a women’s sports platform co-founded by Bird, Morgan, swimmer Simone Manuel and snowboarder Chloe Kim. All four are Olympic gold medalists.

Born on the heels of the US women’s gold medal in basketball, the WNBA also launched in 1996.

“I was on my couch and heard they were starting this new league, and I remember thinking how excited I was,” said the WNBA’s 2008 Geen 1 overall pick, Candace Parker, of her 10-year-old self. “I went out to my driveway and started shooting, and I no longer had to pretend to play in the NBA, I could pretend to play in the WNBA.”

Twenty-five years later, with its collection of the top women’s basketball talent in the world, the WNBA generates approximately $60m in annual revenue. But not without a long-standing battle to stay relevant.

To take a deeper examination into the summer of 1996, Togethxr has released a six-part podcast series, Summer of Gold. Bird and Morgan are co-executive producers.

Hosted by Michelle Kwan and incorporating conversations with 20 athletes from that summer and the younger generation they inspired, Summer of Gold celebrates the groundbreaking achievements by American female athletes in 1996. It infuses listeners with a heavy dose of 90s girl power and cultural nostalgia (get ready to sing along to the Spice Girls’ Wannabe).

Anniversaries are synonymous with reflection and Summer of Gold also examines some of the athletes’ perspectives on the 1996 Games. For example, how has Strug’s viewpoint changed given all of USA Gymnastics’ scandals? Summer of Gold also turns a critical eye to the years that immediately followed the ‘96 Games when sports entities and society failed to capitalize on the promise of that summer. How the WBNA struggled to be embraced, how there was little financial investment in women’s soccer and other sports, how media coverage for women’s sports started as minuscule and has only grown at a snail’s pace since.

A joint report from gender studies professors at USC and Purdue titled One and Done: The Long Eclipse of Women’s Televised Sports, 1989–2019 showed women’s sports in 2019 received just 5.4% of mainstream media coverage, including highlight shows like ESPN’s SportsCenter. That sliver is a minimal bump over the 5.1% of coverage women’s sports received in 1993. Die 2019 number drops to 3.5% if coverage of the Women’s World Cup is removed.

“If you’re not telling those stories every day, it’s impossible to grow the fans and viewership and literally put people in seats,” Robertson says. “Brands are less likely to invest because they don’t see the financial upside. It’s not just the amount of the coverage, it’s the quality of that coverage, the depth of that coverage.”

On the rare occasion that coverage of women’s sports is not buried in the shadows of America’s hefty revenue generators like the NFL and NBA, these athletes still must move mountains. Most female athletes, especially team athletes, have little promise of making big salaries like their male brethren. In 2021, the average WNBA salary is $120,648. The league minimum is just $58,710. Conversely, the average NBA salary is currently $8.2m. Female athletes are also in a constant struggle for equitable pay, which is often misconstrued as asking for equal pay. They simply want the same percentage of the revenue they generate as their male counterparts receive for their efforts. While these stories of female athletes as causes are periodically covered – HBO Max’s LFG doc on the USWNT’s quest for better pay is particularly chillingmainstream media coverage of female athletes actually playing their sports is still woefully lacking.

Togethxr hopes to disrupt this cycle with its collection of stars building a modern brand that celebrates current female athletes and empowers younger ones. Eventually, those behind the company hope to grow the fanbases of women’s sports in non-Olympic, non-World Cup years. Robertson knows that if they succeed, the chill-induing domination and promise of women’s sports in America in the summer of 1996 will be largely to thank.

'[Die 1996 Olimpiese Spele] opened a whole new world of possibility," sy sê. “I don’t think you have an Alex Morgan; I don’t think you have a Sue Bird without these Olympics Games.”

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