As the U.S. women's national soccer team waited behind the medal stand to collect their well-deserved gold, the sport they played was already the recipient of something even more important: Unconditional respect.
In the last calendar year, the women on this team, as well as those on the other international squads, have proven that their game is not only just as relevant as the mens, but in some ways, it's superior.
Nowhere was this more evident that in the Olympic semifinal against Canada. This wasn't just one of the single best soccer games I have ever seen, it was simply one of the greatest games I have ever witnessed in any sport. Period. It was that good. It had drama, bad blood, scoring, physicality, controversy and a climactic ending. By the end of the day Twitter was buzzing with questions about the 6 second rule, the nationality of game official Christiana Pedersen and an avalanche of marriage proposals for U.S. forward Alex Morgan.
While Morgans last-second, game-winning header in injury time of overtime was the single most dominant story following the game, it was just the tip of an iceberg full of interesting personal storylines.
Canadian Captain Christine Sinclair decided that the best player from Americas hat would drop an artful hat trick on The Great White Norths haughty southern neighbors.
When Melissa Tancredi wasnt dishing picture-perfect feeds for Sinclair to finish, she was marauding around the pitch like it was an open audition to be the next member of the Dudleys in a future ECW reunion. Tancredi accumulated seven fouls, one yellow card, punctuated by a deliberate head stomp of Carli Lloyd that would have gotten her disqualified from a UFC event, let alone a soccer international. You dont see that type of villainy in a Cineplex let alone a soccer pitch, and I loved every second of it.
As good as the Canadians played, the U.S. team was more than willing to meeting their every challenge, both physical and on the scoreboard and Midfielder Megan Rapinoe lead the way.
Before the Olympics began, Rapinoe came out in the press as an openly gay athlete. It was obviously a personal decision that required courage, selflessness and confidence. In the semifinal with Canada, Rapinoe came out again. This time as U.S. teams ice cold mistress of clutch. She answered the transcendent Sinclair not once but twice.
She scored first with a Seeing Eye corner kick that took complete advantage of Alex Morgan drawing two defenders off the near post. And then again Rapinoe answered Sinclair with a brilliant long range snipe off the post to tie the score at 2.
Sinclairs third strike, the dubious officiating that lead to Abby Wambachs equalizing penalty kick, and then the stunning Morgan winner as penalties loomed, closed out what should have been the signature game of the tournament.
But the women were not finished.
The crestfallen Canadians rebounded in the bronze medal game with yet another stunningly dramatic goal in the 92nd minute for a 1-0 win against France.
And in the hotly anticipated rematch of last summers World Cup final, the U.S. triumphed over a relentless Japanese side that, until Thursday, had the Americans number. This time however the lone ambassadors of U.S. soccer in London were up to the task. It took two goals from Carli Lloyd to put the U.S. on top and an all-time great save from outspoken goalkeeper Hope Solo in the 83rd minute to seal the deal. When the final whistle blew, both teams turned in another performance that was worthy of an instant rebroadcast.
On the field of play, sports are ultimately a meritocracy. Fans watch what they think is the best product. And in this Olympics, the level of soccer, especially at the height of this tournament, was as good as you would wish to see from any team of any gender.
And let me say this very clearly. The women absolutely and 100 percent embarrass their male football counterparts in both overall toughness and by possessing a fundamental refusal to dive at the slightest provocation. The fortitude of the ladies playing in this tournament should make notoriously dainty divers like Spains Andrs Iniesta ashamed to show their faces in public. Obvious flops were few and far between and knees to the head or gruesome hyperextensions were not enough to pry these warriors off the pitch.
When these games opened the story surrounding these Olympics was of a US team that was seeking redemption. As the medals were awarded Thursday, redemption gave way to a confirmation. This tournament not only crowned the U.S. champions, but it also confirmed unequivocally that the women of the world play a brand of soccer that is just as worthy of your attention as boys.