Once every four summers, the torch is passed, the flame is lit and I curse my lack of cable television.  Join me as I geek-out in a week long series of special posts dedicated to two of my favourite things – Sex and the Olympics!

When I tweeted my intentions to write a series of Olympic themed posts this week, I immediately received a request asking for my thoughts on the sexualization of athletes bodies, particularly women’s bodies.

My first thought upon reading the suggestion was that this would be the perfect opportunity to go on an awesome rant.  But when I sat down to write this scathing zinger of a post, I realized the outrage wasn’t there. I’m not filled with righteous indignation, just a jumble of conflicting ideas about athletes as the object and subject of sexual desire.  It’s definitely an issue that’s worth exploring but I have to cop up front and admit that I’m far from resolving my own feelings on the matter.

I confess to being an Olympic fangal. I also confess that watching Olympians and other athletes doing their athletic thing totally gives me the feelings. At best I’m a sporty dabbler. Hardcore athletes beguile me with their insane physical control, powerful undulating muscles and majestic grace. That turns me on. And I know I’m not alone.

So the fact that people find Olympians beautiful and sexy doesn’t bother me so much. Nor do some of the issues around clothing – specifically women’s clothing. I know some of those outfits get awful skimpy – outdoor women’s volleyball anyone? But I don’t cotton to the notion that revealing clothing is inherently disempowering or inappropriate. Because have you ever *played* outdoor volleyball? It’s physical, it’s hot and you move a lot.  Frankly, a bra top and well-fitted bikini bottoms seems like the ideal outfit.  The same goes for distance runners. I’m as amateur a runner as you can get and even I noticed that (weather permitting) the freedom of shorter shorts improved my running. If anything I’ve often wondered if the being a little more covered up is problematic for the dudes.

So, I don’t object to female athletes in short shorts or bra tops or what have you, assuming those options don’t impeded their ability to perform to the best of their abilities. I also don’t have much issue with a person who gets a bit of pleasure from seeing their favourite Olympian rocking those body conscious wicking fabrics.

The media machine starts churning overtime in an Olympic year. Magazines abound with editorals featuring pictures of 2012 hopefuls, often in overtly sexy clothing and posed in sexually provocative ways. Most athletes require more than medals to make their living. They rely on endorsements and branding and the old adage is true.  Sex does sell. But even so, there’s an interpretation of the situation that I can live with. The one where the athletes in question have happily consented to be being portrayed in a sexual way; where athletes of any gender have the option to access this particular mode of sexual privilege and where anyone can opt out, if they so choose.  If a person wants to flaunt their sexy selves, I got no beef with that.

But…

“Sexy” almost always becomes problematic for me once mainstream media gets a hold of it. Because mainstream media does shitty things like turning “sexy” into a super-specific label that only applies to a handful of people. That’s when we get weird situations like Anna Kournikova. The now retired tennis icon is reported to be the world’s highest paid female athlete. And truth is, Kournikova did have mad skillz relative to most people. She’d handily beat my ass and yours into the asphalt with her mighty racket. But relative to the athletic elite, Kournikova was good but not great. She never won a WTA singles titles. Her highest rank was no. 8 in the world. Yet her earnings eclipse those of ever other sportswoman in the world, not because she is the best athlete but because she best fits the media’s narrow definition of “sexy” and therefore landed the most endorsement deals.  Contrast her achievements with Tiger Woods, the highest paid male athlete. Handsome, yes, but Woods is on of the best athletes of his generation and far more accomplished as a golfer, than Kournikova was a a tennis player.  When talent pays for men, but sexy pays for women, I start having a problem with it. When overt sexuality becomes imperative to an athlete’s financial success, I start to have a problem with it.

And while we’re examining the short end of the stick, here’s another bummer. Reports show that mainstream media typically use sexualized depictions of female athletes to target heterosexual men. And while many dudes like the sexy, very few will watch or otherwise support women’s sport. That’s a big shame because these women are unbelievable at what they do. Even those rarefied creatures who fit into the media’s teeny “sexy” mold get dinged when they’re physical appearance eclipses their exceptional physical ability.

So I don’t know. I think athletes and their amazing bodies are of the good. I enjoy the randy feelings I get from watching these people do amazing things. And I support anyone who chooses to display their body and flaunt their sexuality, provided it is truly a choice. Where sexy goes bad for me is when it becomes exclusive, exploitative or the something that distracts from a person’s main focus. So rant today, because the truth is I just don’t know what the answer is.

Meanwhile if you have any ideas or thoughts, I’d very much like to hear them. Is the sexualization of athletes a problem? Is it okay to emphasize an athlete’s sexuality or should we keep our focus on their ability. And what’s your feeling on revealing clothing during competition?  The comments are open…I can’t wait to read your opinions.

Comments

  1. Chelsea says:

    I have a few tidbits to share.

    Firstly, I would point to the fact that the connection between conventionally attractive looks and endorsement money is huge. Before Buzzfeed covered her story (http://www.buzzfeed.com/jtes/the-strongest-woman-in-america-lives-in-poverty), world-class weightlifter Sarah Robles was struggling to pay her rent. This despite the fact that she is the US’s best hope for a medal in any kind of weightlifting, for either gender. The Buzzfeed exposure got her a sponsor, though! You can read about it on her blog (http://prettystrongblog.blogspot.ca/).

    I’d also point to the gender policing (with medical intervention) of female athletes in the Olympics. http://andrewsullivan.thedailybeast.com/2012/07/the-ioc-the-hormones-maketh-the-woman-ctd.html and http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/18/sports/olympics/olympic-sex-verification-you-say-youre-a-woman-that-should-be-enough.html?_r=2 are good reads.

    Lastly, in other Olympic sex-related news: Grindr crashed due to high traffic volume when the Olympic athletes arrived in London! 😛 http://www.people.co.uk/news/uk-world-news/2012/07/22/gay-app-grindr-crashes-as-olympic-athletes-arrive-in-london-102039-23911190/