Forty years ago, I was preparing to take part in the Opening Ceremonies for the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games as a member of the U.S. Rowing team. It was difficult to contain the excitement building up as the hour drew near. The day before, the team had discussed the wisdom of taking part in the opening ceremonies. I thought it would be a very short discussion. After all, how many times would I be a member of the U.S. Olympic team and have the opportunity to participate in opening ceremonies?
But it turned out to be a substantive discussion, with some questioning the wisdom in taking part.
Our coach explained that the ceremonies would last at least four hours and that it would be six hours by the time we returned to our rooms in the Olympic Village. A greater concern came from the fact that the entire time, we would be on our feet. We would start by walking to the stadium. We would then stand in the center of the field during the ceremony. Afterwards, we would walk back to the Olympic Village. Following all the excitement and the adrenal rush of taking part, the challenge would be staying fresh for our competition the next morning.
This was an important question for us because leg strength is absolutely essential in rowing. Would we compromise our ability to succeed by taking part in the Opening Ceremonies? For me, it was easy to answer that question. I was living in the Olympic Village. I was going to be involved in every part of the experience. If it meant working harder the next day, I would be ready for it be it!
Next, the question of what we would wear was discussed. The parade uniform for the women of Team USA was a nondescript, blue sack of a dress. It couldn't have been more unattractive. The U.S. women decided that it would be better to wear blue slacks, a red shirt and a marshmallow-colored jacket. Most of the other teams with women were wearing track suits or their national dress. Little did we know that our choice of sacking the sack made us the first women to wear slacks in the opening ceremonies of the Olympic Games.
On the afternoon of the Opening Ceremony, I remember walking down the path from the Village. At first, there were a few people on either side of the path. But as we approached the venue, there were solid lines of people on both sides. People were standing three and four deep, applauding and cheering us on. Finally, we turned a corner, and there before us was a hillside packed with people cheering for us. Cheering for all of us. It did not matter that we were the U.S. What mattered was that we were Olympians. We proceeded into the stadium tunnel and out onto the field. The roar was deafening. I remember smiling so hard that my face hurt. I don't know if my legs were exhausted, but I clearly remember feeling that I had been lifted up by the joy that was expressed throughout the stadium that evening.
That was how, in 1976, representatives of the 6,073 athletes, including 1,260 women, representing 92 national Olympic Committees, were welcomed into the select company of Olympic athletes.
On August 5, the world will share in the pageantry of the Opening Ceremonies at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Now, there are 206 National Olympic Teams. And for the first time, there is a special delegation made up entirely of refugee athletes has been entered. They will compete under the Olympic flag and anthem and enter the stadium next to last, just before the host nation Brazil. These young people sought refuge from war and other life tragedies they faced in Syria, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Ethiopia. Some have lived in refugee camps for more than a decade.
The Refugee Team is made up of nine inspirational athletes, five men and four women, who have been able to keep alive the desire to excel on the field of play. Living in a refugee camp with all of the stress of such life did not extinguish their desire to compete at the Olympic level. With the bare minimum of opportunity, they each were able to achieve the qualifying standards for eligibility to compete at the Rio Games.
This year's parade will take quite a long time, as there are now 206 National Olympic teams plus Team Refugee, making 207 delegations in the athletes' parade. Look carefully as the teams enter the stadium. You will see women marching in each delegation. Saudi Arabia will be entering four women athletes, doubling its 2012 delegation of women. Two of the women will compete in track and field, one in fencing and one in judo.
The London Olympic Games were the first to achieve women Olympians for each delegation, and the Rio Olympic Games are building on that. I am particularly proud that for the first time in Olympic history, more than 45 percent of the athletes competing in the Games of the 31st will be women. This is up from 21 percent in the 1976 Montreal Games, and by 2024, we will reach parity. Sustainable progress, maybe too long in coming, has certainly arrived.
Enjoy the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games!