As an Olympic Games spectator (from the comfort of my couch), I have caught snippets of triumphant victory, bitter loss, inspiring stories, and athletic greatness. I sometimes find NBC’s program hard to follow, and I usually tune in around 9pm with no real idea of which seemingly impossible physical feat these incredible athletes will soon make possible. I grab the remote control, and voila, I witness Usain Bolt floating over 100 meters in 9.63 seconds, Chinese gymnast Deng Linlin flipping and contorting her way to gold on the balance beam, or US swimmer Nathan Adrian secure a commanding lead in the final leg of the 4×100-meter medley relay.
But underneath the roar of the crowd, I have noticed a persistent buzz of articles and media coverage surrounding the physical appearance, rather than the physical capabilities, of the athletes. Whether the tone is mocking, flattering, or feminist, my social media news feed is cluttered with references and analysis on how our athletes “look.”
I guess it should come as no surprise that in a culture as celebrity-obsessed as ours, many people expect our celebrity athletes to be as beautiful and sexy as our pop idols. But, each sport favors a different body type, and some fit our conventional beauty norms better than others. The stakes becomes higher when money is involved. Being physically attractive won’t win you a gold medal, but it can get you a lucrative contract with Gillette or Nike.
Here are some examples of what I’ve seen in the media over the past month:
- News outlets everywhere pick up the story that gymnastics gold medal winner Gabby Douglas’s ponytail is being derided on social media sites. Gabby’s response? Confusion.
- Ryan Lochte is America’s new favorite hottie. “The medals, combined with what appears to be serious sex appeal, have made him a hot commodity.”
- Sarah Robles finally gained sponsorship after media outlets drew attention to the fact that one of the strongest women in the world was barely getting by on $400 a month from U.S.A. Weightlifting and donations from friends. Apparently her body type didn’t fit in with what most sponsors were looking for.
- Hurdler Lolo Jones was sharply criticized in The New York Times for her self-promotion (I’m hot! I’m a virgin!), then defended by other news outlets (like this one in Slate). Meanwhile, less well-known U.S. hurdlers win medals, but Jones takes a respectable fourth place.
- Cover Girl Marlen Esparza not only boxes her way to Olympic bronze, she does it with “a light base of makeup with some blush and mascara.”
- Jessica Ennis is proclaimed to be “the face” of the 2012 Olympics.
- The International Volleyball Federation makes headlines by declaring that their teeny, tiny bikini uniforms for women are no longer mandatory “out of respect for the cultural beliefs of some participating countries.” What? Those outfits were mandatory? But tradition is a powerful force, and in the finals, it is Team USA vs Team USA, and both opt for the bikini option. Read more here.
What to make of all this? I am not sure.
I just wonder what my body might look like if I got up off this couch and pursued a training regimen that was anywhere close to that of these talented, driven, and fit Olympians.