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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

By MARK O'KEEFE
c.2000 Newhouse News
Service

While the 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 -- disrobing.

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 edition.

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 double standard.

"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 degrading."

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 display.

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 sports.

"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 Brunswick, N.J.

U.S. Olympic swimming sensation Jenny Thompson disagrees, saying it's time for some people to lighten up.

Thompson 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!"

Describing the 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."

But Kaminsky vehemently denies the charge that athletic women and not men are sexualized.

"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 creatures?"

(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.)

In 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 trend."

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 "Andromache."

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 said.

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 Millionaire."

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 study.

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 lesbians."

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 soccer."

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 California.

"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 physical nature."

As an example, Gobrecht cited Michael Jordan, who never did a nude calendar but did pose in Hanes underwear.

"Sex appeal is a positive for either gender," she said. "Michael Jordan wouldn't be Michael if he didn't have some sex appeal."

The 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.

"Maturity will arrive," said Gobrecht, "when sexuality isn't the overriding theme of women's athletics, but just a part of it."


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