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Sarah Churchwell: Women are winners – at last

Over the last two weeks, the Olympic games have been held to provide object lessons in anthropology, sociology, psychology, economics, politics, history, biology, physics, justice, business, drama, and, of course, engineering.

According to the pundits, watching the Olympics will teach us how to solve every social problem, by showing us how to encourage excellence throughout our society. We can learn "responsibility, self belief, positivity to challenge," according to one commentator (although judging by that example we won't learn English). We've been learning some more disheartening lessons as well.

I've read that Jamaicans are naturally faster, and people from East Africa are better sprinters (or maybe they're better distance runners, I was so dazed by the latent eugenics that I can't remember. What next, Olympic phrenology?)

The one stereotype we've seen little of, perhaps surprisingly, is the one traditionally most associated with sports: gender roles. At the first Olympics, in 776BC, women were not only barred from participating, they weren't even allowed to watch, presumably to keep them from getting ideas.

By the time of the first "modern" Olympics, in 1896, women had made it to the sidelines. But they still couldn't compete: scientists and doctors were arguing that strenuous physical activity was dangerous to women – it could make them infertile, or even drive them mad.

In 1900, in Paris, women were at last allowed to participate in the gentler sports in which ladies could be trusted to "glow" rather than sweat (yachting, lawn tennis, golf).

In 1928, women were allowed to enter a few track and field events, despite the disapproval of the Pope. Unfortunately for the sisterhood, three of them collapsed, leading officials to ban women from running longer events, or participating in more than three events in one Olympics, for decades. It wasn't until 1984 that the women's marathon was at last added; women's football didn't become an Olympic event until 1996.

When Rebecca Adlington won the 800m freestyle gold, and broke the world record, she was joined by her teammate Cassie Patten, who, despite coming eighth in the same race, announced jubilantly, "If the Queen is watching, two golds, Dame Rebecca Adlington!" and gave her team-mate and best friend a big congratulatory hug and kiss.

Patten's cheering display of bonhomie was followed by the men's 50m freestyle, which was won by Brazilian Cielo Filho, who celebrated with a chest-thumping, number-one-finger-pointing display of manly narcissism, pounding the water, pumping his fists, and generally being pleased with himself.

We could extrapolate this small example into any number of claims about gender roles: that women are more compassionate than men, or more communal; that women are taught to be more comfortable with sororal affection; that women create intimacy, while men create hierarchies; that women are from Venus and men are from Mars.

Or possibly, in a society that is only just beginning to encourage women to go into sports, and in which men and boys are still more likely to be comfortable playing, and perceive themselves as being good at, sports, women have learned to give each other a helping hand? Now there's an object lesson worth learning.

Sarah Churchwell is senior lecturer in American literature and culture at the University of East Anglia