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In US-Japan Olympic soccer final, a triumph for women's sport

The US beat Japan, 2-1, in the Olympic women's soccer final Thursday, avenging a loss to Japan in the World Cup final last year. But on this night, every medalist went away a winner. 

By Staff writer / August 9, 2012

The US (r.) and Japanese (l.) teams pose with their medals during the victory ceremony after the women's soccer final at Wembley Stadium during the London 2012 Olympic Games Thursday.

Mike Blake/REUTERS

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London

When the three women’s soccer teams emerged from the beneath Wembley Stadium – Japan, the United States, and Canada – there was no trace of sadness or disappointment on a single face. Each team held hands, three unbroken lines of purest delight, seemingly aware not just of what they had done on this day, but what they had achieved.

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The US had won the gold-medal match against Japan, 2-1, on a perfect August night in London, but the scoreline and who had won what medal was really not the story at all.

In an Olympics where women have, perhaps for the first time, taken center stage, this Olympic soccer tournament turned out to be evidence of the most compelling sort of what women can achieve on the field of play when given a fair chance.

It has been slow in coming. For years, Olympic women’s soccer tournaments have been unbalanced, uncompetitive, and often showed how far there was still to go more than what had been achieved. But on Thursday, three teams that had given the world soccer of the highest order during the past four days strode to the center of the pitch at Wembley – the spiritual home of soccer – and knew that they had thoroughly earned this moment.

Not one of the teams on the medal stand had lost a thing, really, because what they had gained was immeasurably more. Women’s soccer was no longer a project, concocted in the Swiss laboratory of the International Olympic Committee with high ideals and limited expectations. It was the finished product, full-blooded and thrilling.

The Olympic Games were the confirmation of what the world had begun to see during last year’s World Cup. No longer would women’s soccer be a cabal of the select few – the Americas and Germanys winning every tournament. After two decades, the sport was reaching maturity.

But it was that symbolic moment in Wembley Thursday, when the medalists literally took a step forward onto the medal stand in front of an Olympic record 80,203 spectators for women's soccer, that felt like an indelible and historic step forward for the sport itself.

“This is the beginning of something huge on the women’s side” of the game, said US coach Pia Sundhage after the match.

This flowering of women’s soccer must surely be what the IOC hopes for in insisting on women judokas from Saudi Arabia or weightlifters from the United Arab Emirates, and on this evidence, the world of sport can only be richer if these seeds are allowed to bud.

This was wonderful soccer.

If Monday’s semifinal between the US and Canada was a showcase for women’s soccer as pure theater, then Thursday night’s final was a showcase for the women’s soccer as pure sport.

Monday’s match, while among the most thrilling in the history of the women’s game, at times had the feeling of a fire drill. While spectators were in raptures, coaches surely cringed. On Thursday, we got to see perhaps the two best teams in the world playing at the top of their games.

The contrast was intoxicating.

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