updated 8/13/2012 11:18:53 AM ET 2012-08-13T15:18:53

As Team USA marched through London's Olympic Stadium during the closing ceremony of the 2012 Olympics on Sunday, most of the American athletes with medals were women. U.S. women earned 56 percent of the country's medals, and 66 percent of its golds.

Overall, women played such a big role in London that some dubbed these Olympics "The Women's Games." Fans cheered during the opening ceremony when Jacques Rogge, the president of the International Olympic Committee, said: "For the first time in Olympic history, all the participating teams will have female athletes. This is a major boost for gender equality."

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Women competed in boxing for the first time; at least one athlete competed pregnant; a record 80,203 people watched the U.S. and Japan compete for the gold medal in soccer; and 44.7 percent of the athletes competing were women.

But perhaps nowhere is the boost in gender equity quite as evident as in Team USA.

"The U.S. women outperformed the rest of the world and U.S. men," said Mary Jo Kane, director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport, who called the London Games an "unprecedented moment" for women.

"I'm not interested in pitting men against women," Kane added, "but this shows that when women athletes are given opportunities they take them very seriously and come up big in big moments."

Why here? Why now? Two words, experts and athletes say: Title IX.

"Title IX has fundamentally altered the landscape of what it means to be female and an athlete," Kane said of the 1972 civil rights legislation that guaranteed opportunities for girls and women to play sports. "In one generation, we've gone from girls hoping there is a team to girls hoping they make the team."

Jarrod Chin, director of training and curriculum at Northeastern University's Sport in Society, agrees.

"When you look at other countries that don't have laws and rules that promote equality, you see why the U.S. is so far ahead," he said.

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"Social change is one of those things that happens in fits and starts. It might seem to take a long time, and then all of a sudden, when the women won the World Cup in 1999, there was a huge growth in girls' soccer," he added. You need these seminal moment [like London] to provide that platform. Now how many girls in Japan are saying, 'I can play soccer.' Or girls in China saying, 'I can dive or run track or do gymnastics.'"

With a global platform like the Olympics, proponents of women's sports are looking forward to the impact Team USA's success may have worldwide.

"Because we have literally and figuratively set the gold standard, that is what other countries will reach for," Kane said. "We invested in this, and look how our investment has been returned so many times over."

"It's a great thing," Seimone Augustus, a gold medal-winning member of the U.S. Olympic women's basketball team, told the Minneapolis Star Tribune. "We just finished celebrating Title IX in the WNBA, and it's wonderful to raise awareness that women are making strides."

We're getting to the point where more people are starting to respect women athletes," she noted. "It's exciting to see."

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And it may not take 40 more years for everyone else to get there.

"Sports is ultimately about competition," Kane said. "The rest of the world sees the U.S. women, and their response is: 'This is what we need to do to beat them.' Women all over the world will benefit to see what happened when we took it seriously. In that sense, Title IX is one of the most successful and important pieces of civil rights legislation."

Indeed, if a country is only allowing half of its population to compete, an obvious route to being more competitive in the medal count is to allow and encourage women to compete, Chin said.

"The Olympics allows people to take a look at what the rest of the world is doing and challenge that thinking," Chin said. "U.S. women's sports provides that example."

© 2012 Discovery Channel


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