The Olympics have not even started, yet their faces are already inescapable. Step on to the London Underground, open a newspaper, turn on the television, and the women of 2012 are staring out at you.
Jessica Ennis, Rebecca Adlington, Victoria Pendleton: their names are becoming as familiar as those of Premiership footballers. The queen is Ennis, the heptathlete who is already the unofficial face of the Games, and whose lucrative sponsorship deals are expected to bring her riches of close to £1m before she even steps on to the track.
It is already being whispered about by sports pundits and Olympic officials alike: our female competitors look set to do the unthinkable and claim more medals than our male athletes for the first time, toppling them from the top of the British podium.
This milestone would be one of many to celebrate this summer. When the British flyweight Nicola Adams ties on her gloves and steps into the ring, she will also be making history: for the first time, boxing will be open to both sexes, meaning women can compete in every Summer Games discipline. The progress will continue into the Winter Olympics, when ski-jumping will finally be opened up to women in Sochi, Russia, in 2014.
If anything, it is the men who can quibble about missing out now. The only sports where both genders cannot compete this summer are synchronised swimming and rhythmic gymnastics, which men are barred from entering.
Sue Tibballs, chief executive of the Women's Sport and Fitness Foundation, is more accustomed to delivering speeches despairing at the marginalisation of girls from sport, but even she is optimistic that this could be a landmark year. "On a number of measures it's going to be the best Games for women," she says. "There are some big symbolic changes. Women's boxing is one of those sports where some – particularly men in the sport – wouldn't countenance women participating. And if [our] women win more medals than [our] men overall it would be the icing on the cake."
It has taken a long time to get here. At the Paris Games in 1900, organisers grudgingly allowed women to join in the fun – but only in lawn tennis and golf, in which sports their legs could still be safely covered in long skirts. Following the decision, the British tennis player Charlotte Cooper, already a five-time Wimbledon champion, also became the world's first female Olympic champion – but even that small step was too much for some. The father of the modern Olympic Games, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, was unequivocal in his feelings about women competing in the ancient contest. It was, he said, "impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic, and incorrect". If women wanted to attend, they should do so sitting daintily in the stands, applauding the men.
The last time London played host to the Olympics, in 1948, female participants were outnumbered by a ratio of 10 to one, with just 390 women to 3,714 men, drawn from a then-record 59 nations. This year, more than 200 countries are sending 10,000 athletes to compete, and just under half are expected to be women. The new ratio will make the Games the most equal ever – a great leap from Beijing in 2008, when a minority 42 per cent of competitors were female.
Changes are taking place behind the scenes, too. Until 1981, there were no women on the board of the International Olympic Committee (IOC); now, 20 of its 106 members are women. In London, the picture is even better. More than half of the London organising committee (Locog) workforce is female, including five members of the senior management team, while its director of sport, Debbie Jevans, is the first woman to have been given the title in the history of the Games.
When the whistle blows in Cardiff's Millennium Stadium for the first event of the Olympic Games on 25 July, it will be a moment laden with symbolism. The athletes running on to the pitch will be the British and New Zealand women's football teams, playing a sport whose funding and coverage is still dominated by men. Yet the decision to kick off the Games with women's football illustrates the parity k that the Olympics can bring. In any ordinary week, the men's game is the biggest sporting news, and the women's game makes almost no headlines. But during the Games, where every sport competes for attention, men's football will be one of the least high-profile.
The women's team is also a safer bet to get a place on the podium. It will be the first time Britain has managed to send a women's football team to the Olympics, yet the team looks strong enough to win. The chosen squad is almost entirely English – a side that has already shown it has medal quality after beating eventual World Cup winners Japan in the group stages of the tournament in Germany last year.
"It's exciting, because women's football doesn't have the profile it deserves in this country," says Andy Hunt, chief executive of the British Olympic Association (BOA). "Seventy to 80 per cent of [newspaper] back pages are all about football – but that's men's football. It's hard to find stories about women's sport, but this is a chance to even that out."
Tibballs agrees. "Women's sport in total accounts for just 5 per cent of total sports press coverage. [The latest report from the Commission on the Future of Women's Sport suggests that] 61 per cent of sports fans want to see more women's sports, but for some reason the sports press in this country has itself locked into largely male- and football-centred coverage."
The media bias towards men's sport is perhaps best summarised by last year's Sports Personality of the Year award. The shortlist is compiled from the votes of sports journalists at more than 30 newspapers and magazines and in 2011 it did not include a single woman. It is hard to believe the same could happen after this summer. In fact, Hunt believes the Games could have a more lasting impact on men's dominance of sport in Britain. "It's a fantastic opportunity for women's sport in this country," he says. "It's the first Olympic Games where there'll be fully 50/50 [balance in] Olympic competitors, and I think it's fair to expect that a greater percentage of [our] women will get medals. My gut feeling is that it's going to be a really good increase on the ratio in Beijing and that in itself offers the opportunity for more inspirational female role models than we've had coming out of the Games than ever before."
Yet some of his hopes could be misplaced. The latest figures suggest that among Britain's adult population, participation by women in sport is at best flatlining, if not reducing. The only four sports that are growing are jogging, netball, exercise movement and dance, and canoeing. Only the last of these is an Olympic sport – unless you think joggers are all aspiring to be the next Christine Ohuruogu.
The problem starts young. At 14, half as many girls are active as boys, and by adulthood, fewer than one in five women do enough physical activity to benefit their health, according to the Women's Sport and Fitness Foundation. What's more, women's sport is also woefully under-funded. While the Games has given some women the opportunity to cash in on lucrative commercial deals, overall, women's sport receives just 0.5 per cent of all sponsorship income.
There are grounds for hope, however. Nearly 12 million women say they want to be more active – and there can be few greater sources of inspiration than having the world's biggest sporting event on your doorstep.
With just weeks to go until the Games, the Saudi Arabian Embassy released a deceptively banal-sounding statement. Human-rights groups had called on the IOC to k bar the country from competing in London, citing its failure ever to send a woman athlete to the Olympics and its ban on sports in girls' state schools. Yet the Saudis announced that their national Olympic Committee would "oversee participation of women athletes who can qualify" for the London Games. And with those few words, the country could put London 2012 on the path to another dramatic first. For if Saudi Arabia does manage to send a woman, it will mean that every participating nation will field at least one female athlete, including the three Muslim countries – Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei – that have previously sent only men. The significance of the moment is hard to exaggerate. As recently as the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, 26 National Olympic Committees failed to include female athletes in their delegations.
At the time of writing, however, there still appeared to be no obvious athlete for the Saudis to send, leading critics to suggest the announcement had been made only because their sole credible candidate, equestrian Dalma Malhas, was unable to qualify due to an injury to her horse. Qatar, meanwhile, will be sending the 17-year-old swimmer Nada Arkaji and sprinter Noor al-Malki, also 17, while Brunei will field emerging athlete Maziah Mahusin in the 400m.
Mahusin, 19, says she is still in shock at the news, admitting that attending the Games is not something she ever believed could happen. "I thought I would never go to the Olympics," she says. "In Brunei there are not a lot of female athletes because there's no support. All this hard training for five years is worth it now." Her family thought she was wasting her time – as far as they were concerned the statistics spoke for themselves: no Brunei woman had ever made it as an Olympian. Now her mother, a teacher, is planning to use her savings to come out and watch. "My family didn't really support me, but I've tried to prove them wrong. Now they know I'm going to the Olympics they're proud of me."
Jacques Rogge, president of the IOC, believes that thanks to the global reach of the Games, moments such as these could trigger increased equality for women. "Opening the Olympic Games to more women is not just a matter of basic fairness," he said in a statement. "The Games provide a global platform for female Olympians that inspires others to follow their example. More than four billion people, well over half of the world's population, will have access to the London Games on television, the internet or their mobile devices. About half of that audience will be women and girls, a gender balance few other major sporting events can hope to match. That global reach makes the Games a powerful force for gender equality."
Human Rights Watch was one of the many sceptical groups to point out that the inclusion of female athletes on teams such as Saudi Arabia's "fails to address the fundamental barriers to women playing sports". But Rogge added that the Games still has a role to play in improving matters for women. "Sport cannot cure all of society's ills," he said, adding: "We do not have the power to bring gender equality to all aspects of human interaction. But we can use sport to help girls and young women gain the confidence to challenge stereotypes that limit their opportunities in other endeavours."
There will always be those who doubt the amount of change that a sporting event such as the Olympics can affect. But for athletes such as Maziah Mahusin, it offers the chance to show others at home what women can do. As she puts it: "I'm not aiming for any medals, [but] I'll be making history for my country."
13 British women to watch at London 2012
Nicola Adams: Boxing
The 29-year-old flyweight from Leeds is perhaps Team GB's strongest podium prospect out of an impressive trio competing in the Games' inaugural women's boxing competition. Adams recently picked up a third World Championship silver medal – but faces a stiff challenge for gold from her Chinese arch-rival Ren Cancan
Rebecca Adlington: Swimming
Can the 23-year-old from Mansfield repeat that historic Beijing freestyle double? Her recent form in the 800m suggests she should have no problems at the longer distance, though in the 400m she will need all the home advantage the crowds can afford her to overcome Italian world champion and record holder Federica Pellegrini
Jessica Ennis: Heptathlon
Expectation continues to swell around the multi-discipline media darling, but the 26-year-old from Sheffield seems unfazed. In May, she smashed Denise Lewis's British record while pulling off a resounding victory over Russian world champ Tatyana Chernova at the Götzis meeting in Austria, with the seventh-highest score of all time
Yamilé Aldama: Triple-jump
The Havana-born east Londoner may be approaching her fifth decade at age 39, but she is enjoying a late career surge after a decade of personal tumult and previous meets representing Cuba and Sudan. In March, she marked out her territory by winning her first global title at the World Indoor Championships
Hannah Miley: Swimming
The 22-year-old from Swindon, competing in the 200m and 400m individual medleys, could well earn the first Team GB gold if her performance in the 400m medley on the opening day of the Games matches her number-one world ranking. Her preparations – including two golds in Barcelona in June – have gone, er, swimmingly
Eleanor Simmonds: Swimming
As the youngest member of the British Paralympics team in Beijing, the then-13-year-old from Walsall struck gold in both 200m and 400m freestyle. Don't bet against her trumping that haul this time – as she takes on the 50m, 100m and 400m freestyle and 200m individual medley – given the five world records she has netted in the interim
Sarah Stevenson: Taekwondo
The 29-year-old from Doncaster became the first ever British taekwondo medallist with a bronze in Beijing. She claimed a second world title in South Korea last year and, despite suffering a shaky beginning to 2012 due to a serious knee injury, is fighting fit to take on the best of the >67kg category once more
Victoria Pendleton: Cycling
The 31-year-old from Hitchin is coming out all guns blazing for her swansong Olympics, having chosen to compete in three events – the sprint, team sprint and keirin. Her greatest chance of gold remains in the individual sprint, where, as in Beijing, she is expected to face-off against long-time Aussie nemesis Anna Meares
Keri-Anne Payne: Swimming
Having ditched the pool to concentrate solely on open-water swimming, the 24-year-old from Stockport is one of our surest bets for gold as she takes on the 10km course. The first British athlete to qualify for the Olympics after winning last year's World Aquatics Championships, she will line up at the Serpentine as the hot favourite
Laura Trott: Cycling
A star in the making with a penchant for Union Jack nail varnish, the 20-year-old from Cheshunt is riding into the Games on a wave of buzz after picking up two golds at the World Championships in Melbourne earlier this year. She'll be competing in the team pursuit and omnium (a multiple-race event) competitions
Katherine Grainger and Anna Watkins: Rowing
The double-sculls pairing, 36 and 29 from Glasgow and Leek, Staffordshire, respectively, will look to salve the pain of golden near-misses in Beijing, when Watkins competed in the double sculls and Grainger was part of the quadruple sculls team. As a pair, they are unbeaten in 21 races, including June's World Championships
Shelly Woods: Athletics
The 26-year-old long-distance wheelchair racer from Blackpool won silver and bronze in Beijing, which would have been two silvers were it not for the excruciating decision to re-run the 5,000m after a mass pile-up. Her victory in this year's London Marathon suggests the podium may well await as she races in the 1,500m, 5,000m and marathon