THE Olympics is a showcase of youthful energy, explosive power and impossible flexibility, that comes as no surprise, given that the average age of an Olympian is just under 22 years.
But beyond who wins gold, silver and bronze in the 306 events in 28 sports, the world’s top female athletes give us some overarching stories that are record-breakers of their own.
The oldest and youngest athletes at Rio 2016 are women, with a 48-year age gap between them. The youngest is 100m breast stroke swimmer, 13-year-old Nepalese swimmer Gaurika Singh. The oldest is 61-year-old Australian Mary Hanna who competes in the equestrian discipline of dressage.
Uzbekistan gymnast Oksana Chusovitina at age 41, competes in a sport known for its pre-pubescent, impossibly flexible athletes. In this Olympic appearance — her seventh — she placed seventh and has already set her sights on Tokyo 2020.
Her longevity in the sport was driven by a 2002 leukaemia diagnosis of her three-year-old son. Living and training in Germany at that time, she needed money to pay for his expensive treatments, and she found it in sponsorships and prize money at competitions. Her son is now 17 and completely healed.
“Of course I’m not entirely happy with this year’s performance, but what are you going to do? So we are going to move forward,” she said.
When asked about her decision to compete in the 2020 Games when she will be 44 years old, her German manager shrugged and said: “I don’t think she’ll ever retire!”
Then there is the first mother-son team to compete in the same Olympics.
Three-time medalist Nino Salukvadze is making her eighth Olympic appearance; she and her son Tsotne are representing Georgia in the pistol events.
For the first time since women competed in the 1900 Games in Paris, 45 per cent (4,700) of the athletes are women.
Seven countries have more female athletes than male — Australia (212 women, 207 men), China (255 women,157 men), the US (292 women, 262 men), the Netherlands (135 women,107 men), New Zealand (100 women, 99 men), Sweden (86 women, 66 men) and Bahrain (19 women, 7 men).
Saudi Arabia — the world’s most conservative Muslim country — have four female athletes in Rio, up from two who competed for the first time at the 2012 London Games.
Women are also setting records for being the first winners of medals for their countries. Malaysian national women divers Pandelela Rinong and Cheong Jun Hoong won Malaysia’s first silver medal in Rio in the 10m synchronised platform event, the second silver came from mixed doubles badminton pair Goh Liu Ying and Chan Peng Soon.
Canada’s first dozen medals over the first eight days of the Games were won by women. Kenya’s Jemima Sumgong won her country’s first ever women’s marathon gold.
Japan’s Kaori Icho became the first wrestler in Olympic history to win four gold medals in the 58kg women’s freestyle.
Majlinda Kelmendi, 25, made history by becoming the first athlete from Kosovo to win an Olympic gold.
Egyptian athlete Sara Ahmed become the first woman from an Arab country to win an Olympic medal (bronze) in weightlifting (69kg weight class). Hidilyn Diaz lifted 200kg to become the first Filipina woman to win an Olympic medal when she won the silver in the 53kg women’s weightlifting.
Surely one of the most inspirational stories comes from 42-year-old American cyclist Kristin Armstrong who won her third gold in the gruelling 29.7km cycling time trial race. No cyclist — male or female — has ever won the same event in three consecutive Games.
“I think that for so long, we’ve been told that we should be finished at a certain age, and I think that there are a lot of athletes out there that are actually showing that that’s not true,” she said.
When asked why she keeps competing, her answer is simple: “Because I can.”
At the first modern Olympic Games in Athens 1896, its founder Pierre de Coubertin did not allow women to compete calling it “impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic,
Thank God no one took him seriously.
Over a century later, what a show these elite female athletes continue to give us. They come together every four years — the old and the young, from rich countries and poor, in their quest for that elusive Olympic gold — inspiring us with their guts and grace to show us exactly “why women can”.
Faridah is an international speaker and trainer on the Language of Leadership fro Women. Connect with her at faridahhameed.com.