Keep Our Olympians Clothed, Please

Hanna Rosin and I may not agree on the End of Men, but we do see eye to eye on one thing: Stop stripping down our female Olympians.

Hanna Rosin and I may not agree on the End of Men, but we do see eye to eye on one thing: Stop stripping down our female Olympians.

In an article over on Slate, Rosin blasts a tasteless photo shoot, posted to an official Russian website, depicting the host country's premier female athletes in underwear that barely covers their five tools. Russia's not exactly known for healthy depictions of feminism or women's rights, but before we go raising a patriotic flag of indignation, Rosin reminds us that we are just as guilty of sexualizing our accomplished female sports stars.

When it comes to the Olympics, Rosin posits that the rise in what she calls "sports porn" is really just "a backlash to the rise of the female gladiator."

Once upon a time, the Winter Olympics publicity machine put forward as its feminine ideal little pixies in sparkly outfits. The skaters might have worked just as hard as the skiers and endured just as many injuries. But the image they had to conform to was some combination of virginal and fetching, always on the verge of adult sexuality but never quite there. (Witness teenage Michelle Kwan in her not-a-girl-not-quite-a-woman phase, performing that unfortunate Salome number.) As fantasy, the nubile skaters were supposed to be as manageable as a school-girl manga drawing in a Japanese salaryman's briefcase, and a threat to no one. Then Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding exploded that fantasy with their off-rink psychodrama and made it harder to believe that the dainty ice girl was quite as delicate as she looked.

Rosin also offers a more pragmatic explanation: Sex appeal makes athletes, male and female, more marketable. She notes that "men don't have to strip down in quite the same way to solidify their brand," though it certainly hasn't hurt David Beckham's. In this regard, ESPN the Magazine's Body Issue really nails it in its beautiful depictions of athlete physiques without favoring one sex over the other. The universal appeal of the human form in its optimal shape is completely understandable.

The problem arises in emphasizing the sexuality of women over men or over their on-field accomplishments. So what if we can't see the face of Team USA women's hockey goalie, Molly Schaus? Unless you're demanding Ryan Miller stop the puck in his skivvies, let all our athletes keep their clothes on.

(Kavitha A. Davidson is a Bloomberg View columnist who writes about sports. Follow her on Twitter at @kavithadavidson.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

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