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Scott Russell - Thursday Feb. 20, 2014 20:32

Field of Play: Sochi's wonder women

In a day of Olympic excellence, women shone

Canada's women's curling team celebrates their gold medal win at the Sochi Olympics
Canadian curlers, from left, Kirsten Wall, Dawn McEwen, Jill Officer, Kaitlyn Lawes and Jennifer Jones celebrate at the flower ceremony following their gold medal win at the Sochi Olympics. (Ints Kalnins/Reuters)

Things have really changed at the Olympic Winter Games.

At the first edition of this sporting spectacle, which took place in the ski station of Chamonix, France, in 1924, only four per cent of the 325 athletes who took part were women. All of them were figure skaters and the grand total came to a whopping 13.

It was striking to note that on Day 13 of the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia, of all places, women had ascended to become the headliners of a riveting display of both team and individual sports.

In fact, during our programming day across all CBC and partner platforms, female athletes dominated the airwaves as well as discussions around water coolers and in sports bars back home.

It’s obvious that we’re at the point where gender equity is becoming clearly visible on the horizon when it comes to the Olympic arena.

There are now close to 3,000 athletes from 88 countries competing in Sochi, and more than 40 per cent of those athletes – about 1,400 – are women. There are mixed biathlon and luge relays involving both men and women and there is, for the first time, ski jumping for women. The only sport which has not embraced female participation is nordic combined, and there is  not yet an event calling for four women to compete in one bobsleigh.

But if what happened here today is any indication of things to come, total equality of the sexes when it comes to inclusion on the competitive program at the Olympics is just around the corner.

The women’s curling gold medal match featured a talented rink from Canada duking it out in a strategic battle of wits with the resilient Swedes.

It had intricate shots and nail-biting drama.

Famous hockey coaches and players alike watched from the stands as Winnipeg’s Jennifer Jones nailed down the first Canadian gold medal in female curling since the iconic Sandra Schmirler started the rock rolling in 1998 at Nagano, Japan.

This was no pushover mind you, or foregone conclusion. If the truth is told there was a huge sigh of Canadian relief emanating from places like the St. Vital Curling Club in Winnipeg as Jones ended a long period of frustration on the international stage for a country which fancies itself the home of curling.

There is no question that, particularly in the women’s game, the quality of the field is rapidly improving.

Women's hockey in the spotlight

While the same is not true to the same extent in women’s hockey, there are other factors that make the casual observer want to come back for more. Switzerland, bolstered by a miraculous goaltender named Florence Schelling, won its first hockey medal (bronze) in Olympic competition.

The long anticipated gold medal affair between arch-rivals Canada and the United States was insanely entertaining and the speed of the play, particularly when it got to four-on-four overtime on the huge international ice, exhaustingly thrilling to watch.

Pictures beamed to Sochi from sports bars and even the Canadian embassy in Washington, D.C., revealed legions of fans crammed in to cheer wildly when the Canadians heroically dispatched their American rivals with a desperate, late, charge.

Apparently some 10 million people watched the game on TV at some point, while another million or so streamed the game online as they gobbled up the action on their laptops, tablets and mobile devices.

The gender of the players was immaterial.

Finally, the event known officially as the ladies’ final at figure skating lived up to its billing as a marquee attraction for any Olympic winter gathering. A teenaged Russian won over a returning South Korean champion, while an elegant and aging Italian star finally won the medal she had craved through three Olympic summits.

The skating was breathtaking.

Meantime, the crowd was appreciative and wildly partisan while the stars of the show more than lived up to their billing. Unlike the men there were no untimely falls, only great and glorious performances. While the judges may be called into question, as it seems they always are, the athletes rose to the occasion magnificently and delivered on their promise without fail.

And there’s one more thing.

With a record number of athletes casting their ballots, Canadian hockey superstar Hayley Wickenheiser was elected as one of two new members to the International Olympic Committee Athletes’ Commission. As such she will have a platform to help further the cause of her sport maintaining a place on the Olympic roster in the future.

There was great sport.

There were spellbinding performances.

And there was a place at the table for future decisions when it comes to women and their ambitions at the Games.

All in all it was a great day for the Olympics.

And it was the wonder women who made it so.

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