What wasn’t unusual about Chase Ealey on Saturday night wasn’t the way he dabbed his eyelids with dots and broad brushes of red, white and blue makeup.
That part came later.
Ealey said: “I can’t always forget it and people have to wave at my face.”
The event was credited to an equally extraordinary event: a US woman winning a gold medal at the world outdoor track and field championships. Before Ealey won with a first throw of 67 feet, 2¾ inches, a U.S. woman had never claimed silver, notching three previous high water bronzes.
Ealey punched the air with both fists after his first pitch. Two hours later, as silver medalist Lijiao Gong of China failed to advance after her sixth and final attempt, Ealey covered her eyes with those hands as tears and makeup escaped. Not only was it the first gold for a US woman in an outdoor meet, but it was also the first gold by a US woman in any event at these particular worlds. In the coming days, the Americans expect this number to increase significantly and to continue the revival of the sport in the United States, which has been established for two decades.
As the US women won 16 medals at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, their medal count at the Summer Games began to dwindle. Just 16 years later, at the Sydney Olympics, they collected just three – the fewest since 1976 and nine fewer than the US men collected in Australia.
Four years later, a new generation of stars making their first Olympics, including sprinters Sanya Richards-Ross, Lauryn Williams and Allyson Felix, helped double that number to six medals in Athens. Richards-Ross said the young runners were part of a core that won nine medals at the junior world championships two years ago and “saw the possibilities and opportunities” ahead of them.
“It just started as this avalanche, if you know, ‘We’re here, we’re seeing what’s possible, we can continue to be great,'” he said.
Until 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, the U.S. women had a record 16 medals won in Los Angeles 32 years earlier. But their 15 medals in Tokyo last year were perhaps more remarkable — the first time U.S. women won more Olympic medals than their male counterparts, who won 10.
Those 10 overall medals and two golds — won by shot putter Ryan Crouser and the 1,600-meter relay — were each the fewest by a U.S. man in an Olympics.
The men wasted little time rebounding as Fred Kerley, Marvin Bracy-Williams and Trayvon Bromell swept the 100 meters under the setting sun over Hayward Field on Saturday night. And the US women said that this stage is not a chance to be saved, but a chance to be reaffirmed.
“The men are talented, they’re great, but the women, we’ve seen world records fall one after the other in two weeks,” said former USC star Kendall Ellis, who won the 1,600 relay gold in Tokyo. and will run the 400 in these championships. “We saw records being broken [Olympic] trials and then again at the big championship. This is something that has not been done.
“We are seeing the youngest Olympic 800 gold medalist [Athing Mu]then come back and win another gold medal in the 4×4 race [relay]. Women are doing things in track and field that have never been done before and I think we will continue to do amazing things. This is the beginning of everything.”
Mu 20. Sidney McLaughlin, who broke the world record in the 400-meter hurdles last month, is 22 years old. Raevyn Rogers and Gabrielle Thomas, who won bronze medals in the 800 and 200 meters in Tokyo, are 25 years old. Raven Saunders, the shot put silver medalist in Tokyo who did not compete with Eugene, is 26 years old.
Even athletes who look at the sport at its most refined level cautioned that identifying clear drivers for the rise of U.S. women is difficult, if not impossible, because of the sport’s fragmentation. Dozens of training groups each follow their own methods and strategies.
Not everyone has been surprised by recent success on the global stage, which calls the stress of competing at the Olympics or world championships relatively easier than the U.S. championships, with its brutal competition for only three qualifying spots. Making the list was difficult for distance runner Cory McGee in Tokyo.
“The clearest mind goes to the semi-finals [in Tokyo] “It was, ‘If you don’t make it to the finals, you got it from another American,'” McGee said. “I think there’s a level of responsibility. I think it’s a great thing because a girl who finishes fourth or fifth is perfectly capable of making an Olympic final on a good day. I know”.
Several athletes spoke of being inspired by older stars. Some have pointed to the examples of Shannon Rowbury and Jenny Simpson, who have excelled in distance disciplines where US women have not always counted. Some athletes have lasted so long that they started their careers as a starter and finished as a flag bearer. Richards-Ross was a veteran of the 2012 London Olympics, when her 400-meter gold was one of 14 medals won by U.S. women.
“While we’re talking about the ‘representation issue,’ I think 2012 was a huge eye-opener for a lot of young girls coming into the sport,” she said.
In recent years, U.S. women like Felix have used their fame to advocate for changes to women who put their careers on hold to have children, including shoe companies, dominant sponsors in sports, structural contracts and pay. There are still a number of issues to be resolved. As she’s seen the WNBA reach a wider following in recent years, Rogers said she’s disappointed the 15-medal haul from Tokyo isn’t discussed more often.
However, among these issues, women did not mention the opportunity gap between men and women. Some shared that they know many women who have won bigger contracts than men.
Top finishers at this month’s outdoor world championships will win prize money starting at $8,498,000 – men and women will win equal amounts. Gold medalists like Ealey earn $70,000, silver medalists $35,000 and bronze medalists $22,000, dropping to $5,000 for eighth place. Athletes who set a world record in Eugene can earn a $100,000 bonus.
The Diamond League, the sport’s elite circuit that runs from Doha in May to Zurich in September, also offers equal prize money, from $10,000 for winning one match to $500 for eighth. At the most recent US Olympic team trials, payouts for each discipline ranged from $10,000 for first to $1,000 for eighth.
“The great thing about track and field is that men and women get equal prize money, equal competitive opportunities,” said 10-time USA champion Emma Coburn. “In that regard, I’ve always felt that I have an equal opportunity to succeed.”
The opportunity to succeed at the world championships in the United States excited Ellis, who called the Tokyo experience bittersweet. In his first Olympics, he won gold with the 1600 relay leg. But above the medal stand, in a cavernous, empty stadium, the cheers of the Internet could not be heard.
He later spoke to his parents on FaceTime. It wasn’t the same hug Ealey shared after the final inning, once he made his way to the section that held his mother, stepfather, girlfriend and training partner. He held up the American flag and was met with a new round of applause at every part of his victory lap.
“I think we’re just getting started,” Ealey said. “Don’t underestimate us.”