1996 ATLANTA: Women's Soccer Steals the Show
By Sam Scott
Arguably the best Olympics ever for Stanford athletes featured 20 medalists, including 17 golds, in eight different sports. Jenny Thompson, '95, won three golds in swimming and Lisa Jacob, '96, won two more; Jennifer Azzi, '90, and Katy Steding, '90, helped the United States win in women's basketball; Jeff Rouse, '92, won two golds in the pool; and Team USA captain Julie Foudy, '93, led women's soccer to a gold.
Foudy was already a World Cup champion by the time women's soccer debuted at the 1996 Games, but that didn't fully prepare her for the spotlight that landed on her and her teammates in Atlanta.
At the time, women's soccer barely registered as a spectator sport. Average attendance at the 1995 World Cup in Sweden was 4,300. Predictably, NBC showed little interest in televising the women's Olympic matches.
More than 25,000 spectators watched the women's first game, a 3-0 drubbing of Denmark. By the semifinals attendance was more than 64,000. "You'd lose your breath a little bit when you walked out there," Foudy recalls.
In the final, a crowd of 76,489 crammed Sanford Stadium in Athens, Ga.—the largest ever to attend a women's team sporting event—and watched the United States come from behind to defeat China 2-1 for the gold medal.
The American team's success transformed perceptions, recalls Foudy. "If you told people you were on the national soccer team, they gave a pleasant smile. If they found out you were a U.S. Olympian, they wanted to serenade you with the National Anthem on the spot—whether you were jogging with the team or sitting on a plane," she says.
Looking back on her three Olympics, Foudy is fondest of the last one, the 2004 Games in Sydney, which also ended with a gold medal and doubled as a farewell for her and others in the pioneer generation of women's soccer.
But 1996 stands out for showcasing women's soccer in a way it had never enjoyed before, setting the stage for the 1999 World Cup, played before more than 90,000 people at the Rose Bowl and a TV audience in the millions.
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