Fifty years since Title IX, the world of women's sports is transformed

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NEW YORK, June 22 (Reuters) - Half a century since passage of the landmark U.S. Title IX law, Olympians and trailblazers say the legislation profoundly transformed global sport for women.

The law passed June 23, 1972, requires U.S. education programs that receive federal funding to provide equal opportunities for participation - including for all sports.

Girls' high school sports participation has increased more than 1,000% since, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Collegiate sport participation jumped more than 500%, according to the Women's Sports Foundation (WSF).

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What followed was an explosion in women's Olympic participation.

"The impact of Title IX on Team USA is profound,” U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) Chief Executive Sarah Hirshland told Reuters.

Female participation in Team USA's Summer Olympic rosters jumped 310% since Title IX, while their Winter Games rosters saw a 300% boost.

"We've witnessed a remarkable progression over time of U.S. women representing bigger percentages of our Olympic delegations, and of the team's overall medal success,” Hirshland said. "That's great for Team USA, and great for women's sport broadly."

The number of female events at the Summer Games doubled from 43 in 1972 to 86 in 1992, according to the USOPC, with the Winter Games seeing an increase from 12 events to 23 in the same time period.

"That changed the landscape for women not only in the United States but around the world, because the world was watching what the United States was doing," pioneering marathon runner Katherine Switzer said in an interview ahead of the New York Road Runners Mini 10K race.

Switzer was the first woman to run the Boston Marathon as a registered competitor, after challenging a ban on female runners and competing under her initials in 1967. She also lobbied for inclusion of a women's marathon in the Olympics ahead of its 1984 debut.

"There was now a generation of little girls who were growing up and realizing that they were entitled to an opportunity and they took that opportunity," said Switzer. "So then they could set their sights on the Olympics."

Women accounted for nearly half the athletes at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics - 48.7% - an increase from 45% at the Rio Summer Games, according to the WSF. It projected a "strong likelihood" of equal female participation in 2024. read more

Still, work remains to be done to achieve a truly level playing field. The progress has been felt disproportionately, with students from marginalized backgrounds gaining fewer advantages.

A WSF report last month found that girls at predominantly white high schools typically see 82% of the athletic opportunities that boys do. That falls to 67% in schools where students of color are the majority.

"There needs to be work in helping and supporting our disabled athletes and giving more opportunities, obviously, to our BIPOC (Black, indigenous and people of color) community as well," WSF CEO Danette Leighton said.

This month, the WSF partnered with the National Women's Law Center (NWLC) and the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative to launch "Demand IX," a campaign for stronger Title IX protections.

'FLASH POINT'

The law was originally aimed at equalizing academic disparities.

"Title IX was not initially about sports, but sports really quickly becomes a flash point," Laura Mogulescu, curator of women's history collections at the New-York Historical Society, told Reuters.

Its inception overlapped with critical movements in women's sport including in tennis, when nine of its top women, led by King, began their own professional tour after seeing prize money disproportionately allocated for male competitors.

"The 'Battle of the Sexes' is in 1973 and just a couple of months after that, (Billie Jean King) testifies in Congress in support of the Women's Educational Equity Act, which helps fund programs that implement Title IX at schools," said Mogulescu, who co-curated a "Title IX: Activism On and Off the Field" exhibit.

King defeated former men's world No. 1 Bobby Riggs in a hugely high profile exhibition match dubbed "The Battle of the Sexes", widely seen as giving a major boost to women's sports.

For 2004 bronze medal winner and former U.S. women's marathon record-holder Deena Kastor, Title IX meant she did not "know of missed opportunities."

"When I was 11 years old, I was sitting in the living room of my parents house watching Joan Benoit Samuelson come in and win the first ever Olympic medal in the (1984) women's marathon," she said.

"I don't think I knew the significance of it at the time sitting there as a young girl. But I could feel the importance of it."

(This story has been refiled to correct spelling of Mogulescu's name in paragraphs 18, 20)

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Reporting by Amy Tennery in New York Editing by Bill Berkrot

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