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By Belinda Goldsmith
LONDON Aug 12 As women athletes leave the London Olympics basking in unprecedented praise and attention, former female Olympians have some advice for the women of 2012 - keep up the fight.
The London Olympics have been hailed as the Women's Games, with female athletes competing in all 204 national teams and in all 26 sports for the first time as women boxers made their debut.
The participation of the first women athletes from the Islamic nations of Saudi Arabia, Brunei and Qatar was seen as a milestone in the battle for sex equality globally and another step towards the Olympic committee goal of 50-50 participation.
Women outnumbered men on three of the five largest teams, the United States, China, and Russia, bumping the number of women up to 44 percent of athletes from 42 percent at Beijing.
At Barcelona 20 years ago, 25 percent of the athletes were female and 34 teams had no women.
U.S. and Chinese women bagged more medals than male team mates while women in the host British team won headlines galore for snaring about half of Team GB's gold haul, with Briton Nicola Adams becoming the first female Olympics boxing champion.
Former top female Olympians said the success of women at the 2012 Games should be used as a springboard to put sportswomen on an equal footing with men in non-Olympics years when they struggle for funding and for media coverage.
"Women have dominated at these Olympics and they should take this opportunity to keep promoting themselves and their sports," said Nadia Comaneci, the Romanian gymnast who won five gold medals at the 1976 Montreal and 1980 Moscow Games and now runs a gym academy in the United States.
"There's a different mentality towards women in sport now but there is still a competition between men and women. That will never stop."
LOOKS VERSUS PERFORMANCE
Women's rights campaigners welcomed the progress at the Olympics where neutrality and equality are two key values.
The Olympics are seen as an opportunity every four years to promote women's sport and gender equality generally because one set of rules applies to all countries.
However, they said the fight was not over, with women competing in 30 fewer events than men in London and only 132 gold medals available for women compared to 162 for men.
Campaigners were outraged that female Japanese footballers and Australian women's basketball players had to travel to London in economy seats while the men flew in business class.
A UK study by the Women's Sport and Fitness Foundation found women's sports get 0.5 percent of commercial sports sponsorship, 5 percent of media coverage, and 43 percent of teenage girls say they do not have female sporting role models.
Jessica Mendoza, who won gold with the U.S. softball team in Athens 2004 and silver in Beijing 2008, said the explosion in social media gave female athletes the means to maintain the higher profile they had won at the London Games.
"Women athletes have to create their own brand, find their voice, and stay connected with the thousands of fans they now have," said Mendoza, past president of the U.S.-based Women's Sports Foundation.
"With social media you don't have to rely on the major media outlets any more. This is the time for women athletes to shine."
British cyclist Lizzie Armitstead, a silver medallist, used the podium at London to highlight the "overwhelming sexism" persisting in sport in salary and in media coverage, in which women athletes are often called girls and looks can trump performance.
U.S. gymnast Gabby Douglas, 16, who won two gold medals at London, came under fire on Twitter for her "unkempt" hair style.
American Lolo Jones, who finished fourth in the 100m hurdles, fought back tears when faced with a press report that suggested, like former tennis player Anna Kournikova, she used her looks to get more attention that her performance deserved.
British weightlifter Zoe Smith blasted Twitter trolls when they attacked her for looking too manly.
London Mayor Boris Johnson described the "semi-naked women" playing beach volleyball as "glistening like wet otters".
Former British Olympian Denise Lewis, who won gold in the heptathlon at Sydney 2000, said it was up to each athlete to decide how they wanted to portray themselves publicly.
She said it was harder for women to grab headlines and make a career from their sport so playing the glamour card could help them get attention but only if they succeeded in their sport first.
"I see nothing wrong with showing that athletes bodies can be beautiful, strong and feminine," Lewis, who has become a television personality, told Reuters. "We need positive role models to encourage more girls into sport and showing women athletes can be strong and feminine can help."
As the London Olympics come to a close, the overwhelming view was that women had fuelled the success of 2012 Games.
Sebastian Coe, chairman of London organising committee LOCOG, said some of the big, high profile moments at London 2012 focused on women, such as the involvement of athletes from Saudi Arabia where Muslim clerics decry women's sport as immodest.
"I think we have really moved this agenda on in a big way in London," Coe told reporters. (Editing by Alison Williams)