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American women raise the standard

We're at Olympics halftime and nobody's been more heroic than our women. Better get a grip, guys, because it is America's female athletes who are carrying the torch.

Lots of U.S. guy medals are coming, but when the fire cools on Georgia's five-ring circus, the most automatic Atlanta 1996 recollections may involve winners named Kerri, Kimberly, Angel, Teresa, Brooke, Gwen, Gail and Amy.

NBC, in a nouveau ratings quest, is going less for Olympic sports with traditionally heavy male interest, but more for prime-time programing that targets women viewers. Nielsen numbers have been rewarding.

"Obvious successes in U.S. medals and NBC-TV ratings are generating far more upbeat attitudes toward female athletes," said Susan Blackwood, vice president of USA Basketball and former University of Texas associate athletic director.

"Media, commercial sponsors and the ticket-buying public are beginning to realize the heavy demographic potential in sports that become more properly gender-balanced."

Sixteen gold medals have been won by Americans during the first seven Olympic days, nine by women and seven by men. Among the more visible achievers have been U.S. gymnasts Kerri Strug and Shannon Miller, shooter Kimberly Rhode and swimmers Brooke Bennett, Amy Van Dyken, Angel Martino and Amanda Beard.

Gender barriers are properly evaporating. Old-line, hard-headed thinking is softening. It's more than okay for little boys and little girls to compete head-to-head and side-by-side in baseball, soccer, softball, golf, tennis and other sports.

Nobody can be sure how definitive, in long-range benefits, the Atlanta Olympics boost will be for female athletes. But the arrow is pointing dramatically upward. Only questions are how high and how quickly?

"Olympics have always been a springboard for women athletes," said Blackwood, now executive director of the San Antonio Sports Federation. "But there is more encouragement than ever that enhanced interest in female competitors can be more effectively perpetuated.

"Parents are more widely recognizing the self-esteem that now can be realized by little girls who seriously compete. There can also be financial incentive. College scholarships worth tens of thousands of dollars have become enticing factors, thanks to Title IX, for women in many sports.

"Role models are more numerous than ever, for instance among our U.S. swimmers as well as the talented American women who have an exciting shot at winning a basketball gold medal in these Olympics. Our hoops women drew 31,000 spectators to the Georgia Dome for a 107-47 beating of Zaire. Pro basketball leagues are on the immediate horizon for women in America.

"Little girls no longer have to wear the No. 23 basketball jersey of Michael Jordan or the No. 34 of Shaq O'Neal to feel plugged into the game. They are feeling better and better about, say, wearing the No. 7 of Sheryl Swoopes or the No. 4 of Teresa Edwards."

Hundreds of full-ride scholarships at colleges of varying sizes are available in basketball, volleyball, swimming, tennis, golf, lacrosse, soccer, track, softball and other sports.

"It's not like we're hoping to outdo male athletes or rob them of any visibility," said Lisa Leslie, a 6-foot-5 center on the U.S. Olympic women's basketball team. "When a sufficient number of people see how wonderfully 1990s females can athletically perform, plus learning more about our personalities as human beings, I sincerely believe they will want to see sportswomen on a continuing basis.

"Moms and dads should be encouraging their daughters to work really hard at sports, becoming as good as they can be. For a few of the better performers, there can be first-class college opportunities. Free educations. Competition among famous schools. Then, for the best of the best women athletes, there can be Olympics. In the future, we will hopefully be able to include significant chances as professional players.

"We're coming on."