Aesthetics or Athletics? Objectifying Olympic Swimmers

Just three days before the swimming competition started at the 2012 Olympics, Leisel Jones, Olympic swimming gold medalist, made news headlines from her native Australia to New York City. The initial article that sparked the international buzz didn’t emphasize that Jones is the first Australian swimmer to compete at four Olympic Games (starting in 2000 at age 15). Instead, critiquing her appearance, the [Melbourne] Herald Sun juxtaposed a photograph of Jones, standing, smiling, in a swimsuit in 2008 with a 2012 photograph of her poised on the diving block.

The accompanying text reads, “as these pictures show, she resembles none of her previous incarnations and appears heavier than at previous meets.”

The short clip below, which shows Jones recently, encapsulates the outraged comments the article provoked for its scrutiny of the swimmer’s appearance and support for Jones focusing (as the paper failed to do) on her athletic record.

Jones isn’t the only Olympic athlete to have her athleticism downplayed and her appearance scrutinized by the news media. Sometimes, the media believes it is positively showcasing an athlete’s body.

Photo from “Unflagging,” by Jack McCallum, Sports Illustrated, 93, no. 6 (August 14, 2000): 52.

Just prior to the 2000 Olympic Games, Sports Illustrated featured an article on American swimmer Jenny Thompson. One photo that accompanied “Unflagging” depicted Thompson standing on the beach, with legs spread, wearing only short swimming trunks patterned with American stars and stripes and shiny red boots. Her fists shield her breasts as she smiles boldly into the camera.

Her agreement to be photographed wearing an outfit imitative of “Wonder Woman” provoked mixed reactions. Many, including the Women’s Sports Foundation, criticized her choice. Others, including members of the 1999 Australia women’s soccer team, championed Thompson’s right to display and profit from the body she worked so hard to attain. Opinions sparred on-line and in print for two weeks.

In the final round, Sports Illustrated reporter Rick Reilly lambasted and shamed feminist “prudes” for criticizing the photograph of Thompson and the decision of other women athletes to pose topless or nude.

He defended, “Here are women with real bodies, fit bodies, attainable bodies–not bodies you can only get through the Lucky Gene Club or plastic surgery or throwing up your lunch every day. . . . Thompson  sends young girls a terrific  message: Fit is sexy. Muscles are sexy. Sport is sexy.”

At first glance this may sound perfectly reasonable. For the record, I fully support Thompson’s decision to pose as she did. The Olympian’s accomplishments and strong physique deserve recognition and provide a positive role model. If, however, SI’s primary intent was to promote Thompson as a role model to young women, why did the feature appear in SI which has a predominantly male audience and not SI for Women which targets a female audience? Regardless, Reilly is right on one hand: all Olympic athletes work incredibly hard, sacrificing any semblance of  normal young adult life. Their determination and discipline define them. They should proudly display their bodies. These elite athletes should be lionized. And of course, women need healthy, strong, fit role models.

However, the justification is troubling for two reasons. Reilly asserts that Thompson is a good role model because her muscular body is “attainable” and “sexy.” First, it is highly doubtful that her perfectly sculpted body would prove an attainable reality for most women. Walking, as health experts suggest the average person do for fitness, at least 10,000 steps a day will not produce legs like that.

But, emphasizing “Muscles are sexy. Sport is sexy” is mixed and troubling message, implying, as it does, that the muscular strength and stamina required of elite women athletes is secondary to her sexual appeal. Whether a woman swimmer is being praised for her body as Thompson was, or criticized for it as Jones was, the point is: reporters (and viewers) continue to judge and categorize Olympic women athletes by their appearance first and their performance second. Why must some derivation of “sexy” enter the description of a gold-medal winning woman athlete? Did assessment of women swimmers’ physique always take priority over assessment of her athletic skill?

Gertrude Ederle (left) and her sister Margaret, likely prior to her first (unsuccessful) attempt to swim the English Channel in 1925. George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress)

Perhaps, to a degree. But the media’s emphasis on women athlete’s appearance over performance heightened after the Great Depression. In the 1920s, sports journalists reported primarily on the performance of women swimmers (open water swimmers in particular).

And, at that time, the public marveled at and appreciated the athleticism of women swimmers, even if those who had larger frames. For instance, Gertrude Ederle, gold-medalist at the 1924 Olympics, set a new world record and became the first woman to successfully swim across the English Channel in 1926. The successful swim made her, at only 19, the most celebrated female athlete of the decade. Contemporaries praised her as an admirable specimen of womanhood and, when polled in 1926, more women wanted to be Ederle than Miss America. At 5’4” and 156 pounds (before her victorious swim), she would be considered overweight by contemporary standards. By 1938, she was memorialized by writer Paul Gallico for her “Teutonic chubbiness” and the fact that “she was never a member of the beauty chorus.”

The Olympics unquestionably exhibit and celebrate the human body. Spectators sit spellbound watching runners move so fast their feet barely touch the track, divers soar through the sky with breathtaking beauty, swimmers glide through water like dolphins, and gymnasts defy gravity. Unfortunately, despite athletic skill and gold-medal earning performances, many athletes (especially women) continued to be assessed–whether praised or critiqued–by their body’s appearance. The pressure society exerts upon women athletes to not only compete perfectly but to appear perfect sends a highly troubling message.