The Year of the Woman: The London Olympics Strike Early for Gender Equality

One hundred and sixteen years after the modern Olympic movement began, London heralds the 'Year of the Woman'

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Rebecca Blackwell / AP

Malaysian markswoman Nur Suryani Mohd Taibi shoots during a training session for the 10-m air-rifle event at the Royal Artillery Barracks in London on July 26, 2012, ahead of the 2012 Summer Olympics

It was the first gold medal of the London Olympics, and Nur Suryani Mohd Taibi was off by a long shot. On Saturday, the Malaysian markswoman placed 34th out of a field of 56 in the 10-m air-rifle qualification round. (The event was eventually won by China’s Yi Siling, giving the People’s Republic one of its four gold medals of the day to ensure that the country led the medal table after day one.) But for Suryani, just showing up was remarkable enough. Due to deliver a baby girl in early September, the 29-year-old is believed to be the most heavily pregnant athlete in the history of the Olympics.

And talk about a troubled birth: 116 years after the modern Olympic movement began, the London Games finally herald the “Year of the Woman.” For the first time in Olympic history, every one of the 204 delegations participating in London includes female athletes. “This is a major boost for gender equality,” said International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Jacques Rogge, in about as emotive a sentence as the low-key Belgian managed during Friday’s opening ceremony.

Moments before, during the parade of nations (and territories, principalities and other not-quite-national entities), Saudi Arabia had introduced to the world its first ever female athletes, a judoka and an 800-m runner. Qatar made one of its three inaugural female athletes its flag bearer. (On Saturday, that flag bearer, Bahya al-Hamad, placed 17th in the same 10-m air-rifle competition as Suryani.) Brunei also made its first female participant, 400-m hurdler Maziah Mahusin, its flag bearer. And perhaps it’s fitting that the host nation’s best chance for a gold in the athletic events, which will take place in the same stadium, is yet another woman: Great Britain heptathlete Jessica Ennis.

(VIDEO: TIME Interviews Jessica Ennis)

London marks another gender milestone. The Games are the first in which every sport includes female athletes. The final holdout, boxing, will begin women’s competition on Aug. 5 (watch for Great Britain’s neighbor, Ireland, to impress, thanks to Katie Taylor). Freestyle wrestling added female grapplers in 2004, while weight lifting was granted gender equality in 2000. (Although each sport is now offered for both genders, there are still more men’s events, like those brought on by a greater variety of weight classes.)

As a result of all the girl power, the makeup of some Olympic delegations has tilted toward the X chromosome. The American squad in London has, for the first time, more women than men. Women make up the majority among the Russian and Chinese squads too. Both of those countries have traditionally encouraged female participation because it’s easier to rack up medals through women’s sports than via the male ones that are better funded in the West.

(PHOTOS: Highlights from the 2012 Olympic Opening Ceremony)

Suryani, who is ranked 47th in the world, took to the sport after her father, a shooting-range manager, despaired of controlling his rambunctious daughter. The 10-m air rifle is actually not her preferred event. At the Commonwealth Games in India, in 2010, Suryani struck gold in the 50-m three-position air rifle, but she had to forgo that competition in London because her growing belly makes one of the positions — lying on her stomach — impossible. A Muslim, she competed at London’s Royal Artillery Barracks with her hair tucked under an improvised headscarf-visor combination.

(MORE: Running on Faith: How Politics, Rather than Fasting, Has Often Proved Tougher for Muslim Olympians)

A sartorial challenge faces Saudi Arabia’s judoka Wojdan Ali Seraj Abdulrahim Shahrkhani, who had expected to also wear a headscarf during her bouts. The International Judo Federation now says safety concerns dictate a headwear prohibition in competition — even though the sport’s Asian organizing body has allowed religious veils. (Another Olympic martial art, taekwondo, permits hijabs in international competition, but the sport uses head guards that can be worn over any headscarves.)

There are still a few days in which the Saudis, Olympic bureaucrats and judo officials can try to reach some sort of settlement on Shahrkhani’s case. The IOC has every incentive to ensure her participation. After all, back in 1996, not so long ago, 26 participating Olympic squads failed to field a single female athlete. The world’s come a long way since Atlanta. Sending Shahrkhani back home would mean one less woman for what’s fast becoming London’s iconic Year of the Woman.

MORE: 50 Olympic Athletes to Watch

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