|Olympic swimmer Ashley Tappin of
the United States, shown here in the pool, posed more
provocatively in an unbuttoned sweater for a men's magazine.
She dismisses criticism of the photo as "a bunch of bull."
(Photo by Chuck Cook)||
THE VALUES AND PHILANTHROPY BEAT
Sexploitation or Pride? Female Olympians'
Revealing Poses Stir Debate
c.2000 Newhouse News
Olympics have added weightlifting, hammer throwing and pole vaulting as
official women's events, dozens of female Olympians have enthusiastically
participated in an unofficial, eyebrow-raising, media-covered sport --
American Olympians stepped out of their warm-up outfits
and into what Maxim magazine calls "the sexiest get-ups we could create"
for the publication's September issue. The Australian women's soccer team,
the Matildas, created its own $20 calendar featuring full frontal nudity.
Canada's Waneek Horn-Miller appeared naked with a strategically placed
water polo ball on the cover of Time magazine's Canadian
Echoing the unabashed attitudes of her fellow athletic
models, Horn-Miller told the Canadian press that she hoped to communicate
"the strength, pride and determination" of the women's team. But where
some see strength and pride, others see unnecessary titillation and a
"All I'm asking for is equal treatment," said Mary
Jo Kane, director of the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women
in Sport at the University of Minnesota. "When Tiger Woods is on the cover
of Sports Illustrated naked, holding a golf ball with the Nike swoosh in
front of his genitals, I'll be quiet."
Said Donna Lopiano,
executive director of the Women's Sports Foundation of Long Island, N.Y.,
"Any exposure in a sports magazine that minimizes athletic achievement and
skill and emphasizes the female athlete as a sex object is insulting and
Sexualizing female athletes is nothing new. What's
different is that a generation of athletes seems to be cooperating with
the process, as if, said Kane, they are saying, "`Hey, we've arrived, we
can be soft-porn icons, too."'
But the critics just don't get it,
contend the athletes competing in Australia. It's not about pornography,
but an artistic celebration of a lean and muscled athletic ideal of the
female body, one they have worked hard to achieve and are proud to
Opinions about the propriety of nude modeling aside, some
argue that beneath the debate lies societal uneasiness with women as
athletes, even as their popularity soars above men's in some
"I think it's partly a backlash against women, a way of
diminishing their power, trivializing their strength, putting them in
their sexual place," said Linda Steiner, associate professor and chair of
the department of journalism and media at Rutgers University in New
U.S. Olympic swimming sensation Jenny Thompson
disagrees, saying it's time for some people to lighten up.
posed on a California beach for Sports Illustrated wearing red boots, a
red-white-and-blue swimsuit bottom and nothing on top, her fists covering
bare breasts. The woman Mattel chose to endorse "Swimming Champion Barbie"
says she took off part of her suit to display a muscular, athletic form to
young girls, to which Kane responds, "It's not clear to me which muscle
group naked breasts belong to."
September's Maxim portrays swimmer
Ashley Tappin gazing provocatively beneath spiky bangs in a red sweater
unbuttoned from the waist to the collar. When her hometown newspaper, The
Times-Picayune of New Orleans, asked Tappin to comment, she sarcastically
replied: "Athletes showing skin! Oh, forbidden!"
criticism as "a bunch of bull," Tappin said: "We're healthy. We're fit.
And we're not just cute; we do good things with our bodies. They are
functional. Why not show them off?"
Unlike some sports
publications, Maxim, a men's magazine, is unapologetic about showing off
female bodies and writing about sex. "Let me put it this way," said James
Kaminsky, its executive editor. "If (U.S. Attorney General) Janet Reno
were a babe, we'd put her on the cover in a second."
vehemently denies the charge that athletic women and not men are
"If you go back to the original Olympic games, the
Greek athletes did them naked for the main purpose of the titillation of
the horny Greek men of the time," he said. "In the modern games, Jim
Thorpe was considered a sexual icon for women. Mark Spitz had a
hot-selling poster wearing just a tiny little bathing suit and his gold
medals. Yet with female athletes we're supposed to treat them as asexual
(Thorpe was the 1912 track and field gold medalist who
went on to play professional football and baseball, and whom some regard
as the athlete of the century. Spitz won seven gold medals in the 1972
games, more than any other athlete in a single Olympics.)
reality, sexuality had little to do with male athletes competing without
clothes during the original Olympic games, said David Romano, senior
research scientist in the Mediterranean section of the University of
Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. One story attributes
the practice to a Spartan tradition, while Romano said another traces it
back to "a man from Orsippus who lost his shorts during a race and set a
But there is evidence, Romano said, that provocative
clothing and nudity among women athletes in ancient Greece sparked a
controversy similar to this year's.
Women had separate Olympic
games back then, with a 155-meter race pitting the athletes of Sparta
against the women of Athens. The Spartan women trained in the nude with
male athletes in the gymnasium, a Greek word that means "place of naked
people," Romano said. In competition, the Spartan female athletes wore a
short dress that left one breast exposed.
Athens critics dubbed the
Spartan athletes "thigh flashers," and playwright Euripides insulted
Sparta's lack of restraint and chastity in a popular 430 B.C. play called
If Spartan female athletes competed today, they would
be among those taking their clothes off, Romano said. "It's totally within
the ancient tradition of being proud of your physically attuned body to
show off what you've spent years and years to produce," he
Kane traces the disrobing of the modern female athlete back
to "the Brandi Chastain moment," when the U.S. soccer star celebrated her
game-winning 1999 Women's World Cup penalty kick by -- spontaneously, says
Chastain -- ripping off her jersey and revealing a black Nike sports bra.
Chastain also posed nude for Gear magazine in October 1999, crouching like
a question mark over a soccer ball.
Since then, Chastain has become
perhaps the biggest celebrity of that famous World Cup team. She was named
one of People magazine's 20 most intriguing people of 1999 and was the
answer to a $32,000 question on "Who Wants to Be a
Can showing a little more skin bring in a lot more
money and attention?
Olympic high jumper Amy Acuff hoped so when
she orchestrated the Omni-Lite Millennium Calendar of Champions ($19.95).
It features Acuff and 11 other female track and field athletes in
black-and-white photographs, mostly nude.
Not to be outdone, the
Canadian women's cross-country ski team announced in September that it
produced a "Nordic Nudes" calendar, on sale for $30.
"We did this
to raise money," team member Sara Renner told The Calgary Herald, "but
also to raise the profile of cross-country skiing across Canada. I've been
racing for 10 years and the profile of the sport hasn't improved, and this
is a way to get cross-country skiing as a household sport, even if we have
to take our clothes off to do it."
A study of television sports
coverage released this month by the University of Southern California
provided some fresh evidence that women's sports are often sexualized when
they are not ignored.
The study looked at 1999 sports coverage of
three Los Angeles stations for six weeks and ESPN's "SportsCenter" for
three weeks. It found that reports on men outnumbered those on women
6-to-1 on the local broadcasts and 15-to-1 on ESPN. When women were
covered, the broadcasters often engaged in "sexual voyeurism," commenting
on the good looks of tennis player Anna Kournikova or reporting on visual,
offbeat sports such as nude bungee jumping or professional women's
wrestling, said Michael Messner, a sociology professor who conducted the
Steiner, at Rutgers, said that for many women athletes,
posing nude is "a way of cashing in when they can and exploiting their
situation, which is inevitably short-lived."
"And I also think it's
partly a concern on the part of the women athletes to prove their
`womanhood,' to give evidence that they are feminine, despite their hard
bodies, and even to define themselves as sexual, given their fears that
others might think they are masculinized or de-feminized," Steiner said.
"In short, some of this is an effort to prove that they are not
It's a sensitive subject, but one Amy Taylor, one of the
Australian soccer team nudes, addressed when she said, "We wanted to prove
we're not all butch lesbians. We are attractive, feminine girls who play
It has been 28 years since Title IX banned sex
discrimination in federally funded school programs in the United States.
For the first time, women will compete in the same number of team sports
as men at the Olympics.
But the flap over nudity reveals that women
are still struggling to find their unique athletic identity, said Chris
Gobrecht, women's basketball coach at the University of Southern
"Sports, by its very nature, proclaims masculinity,"
Gobrecht said. "Women have been a little bit pressured to establish their
femininity in sports. Whether you want to call it homophobia or whatever,
part of that is what these women are fighting.
"We just have to
grow out of our adolescence. We need to be comfortable with the sexuality
that will be the natural extension of any gender performing actions of a
As an example, Gobrecht cited Michael Jordan, who
never did a nude calendar but did pose in Hanes underwear.
appeal is a positive for either gender," she said. "Michael Jordan
wouldn't be Michael if he didn't have some sex appeal."
difference between Jordan and female athletes is that Jordan is remembered
primarily for his six NBA championships, his game-winning performances and
his gravity-defying dunks, not his underwear shots.
arrive," said Gobrecht, "when sexuality isn't the overriding theme of
women's athletics, but just a part of it."