The international competition of the Olympics provides the opportunity for cultural exchange. Athletes from nations around the world hold spectators in awe as they push themselves to establish new records. Coverage of the Games saturates the media for two weeks. Whether viewing televised coverage or via online streaming, sports enthusiasts watch on the edges of their seats, eagerly anticipating race results. Outside of the Olympic Games, the most popular and avidly followed sports in America are sports associated with and dominated by men. Sports reporting involves the creation and perpetuation of our legends, heroes, and gender stereotypes. With such a ready, widespread audience tuning in daily, the Olympics hold the potential to crack the foundation of cultural and gender stereotypes. Do they?

In America, televised coverage is undeniably selective. In 2012 American viewers tweeted in annoyance about delayed televised coverage of popular sports until prime time. Some questioned the American-centric aspect and dramatization of athletes who “lose” by winning a bronze or silver medal instead of gold, or narrowly miss advancing for final competitions. New York Times Op-Ed columnist Frank Bruni blogged eloquently about NBC’s dramatized coverage: http://bruni.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/07/31/tears-and-solipsism-at-the-olympics/?smid=pl-share Join me as I explore representations of swimming and the cultural associations of swimsuit in the 2012 Olympics.

Synchronized Swimming: History Behind the Smiles

Promotional photo of Esther Williams performing underwater, circa 1944. Courtesy International Swimming Hall of Fame.

It happens every four years. The world’s best women synchronized swimmers enthrall Olympic audiences with their perfectly timed twists, turns, thrusts and flips. Where other sports, like swimming races, are perceived as athletic competitions, synchronized swimming retains an association with entertainment and pageantry.

Perhaps more than any other sport, women’s appearance matters as much as their athletic performance. Official rules permit swimmers to wear a small nose clip but other equipment–like goggles or swim caps–are forbidden during Olympic competition. As loose hair swirling in the water would obstruct visibility and get in the way, swimmers must coat their hair with unflavored gelatin to cement it in place. Would athletes in any other sport agree to this–while wearing a smile?

The association between synchronized swimming, pageantry and femininity harkens back to its inception. The modern sport evolved from underwater ballet which was performed in Europe in the 1890s. Australian swimmer Annette Kellerman whet America’s appetite for synchronized swimming when she began demonstrating swimming and diving techniques in a 14-foot aquatic tank at London’s Hippodrome (1906). Wild success in England led to vaudeville contracts in America. Because vaudeville still held associations with burlesque and the swimsuit Kellerman wore to perform was considered risque, she took great pains to exaggerate her femininity–respectably–in her swimming acts. Within six years, she transitioned to the silver screen, becoming one of the most popular silent film stars of her era. Because her films featured her swimming underwater or diving, the press dubbed her the “Million Dollar Mermaid.” The underwater ballet movements Kellerman performed in later films were direct precursors to synchronized swimming, but that term did not yet exist.

“Synchronized swimming” made its way into common parlance in 1938. The description was first used, reportedly, by American Olympic swimmer Norman Ross who earned three gold medals in the 1920 Games. Asked to comment on a group of women performing water acrobatics to music at the Century of Progress International Exposition in Chicago (1934), Ross remarked on the impressive “synchronized swimming” of the performers. The phrase stuck.

Broadway celebrity Billy Rose further promoted synchronized swim performances in his wildly popular “Aquacade” which was staged at the World’s Fair in 1939. Five million people flooded New York’s 11,000-seat marine amphitheatre to watch the dramatic performances that combined dancing, swimming and water acrobatics–the same elements of modern synchronized swimming–and featured former Olympians including Gertrude Ederle and Johnny Weissmuller.

Swimmers in Billy Rose’s Aquacade, Golden Gate International Exposition, Treasure Island, 1940. (San Francisco History Center, SF Public Library)

Based on its success in New York, in 1940 Billy Rose’s Aquacade opened in San Francisco where Rose discovered California swimmer Esther Williams. Winner of three national swim championships (breaststroke and freestyle) Williams had earned a place on the 1940 U.S. Olympic team. When WWII preempted the Games, Rose persuaded Williams to join his Aquacade and she shifted from athletic swimmer to celebrity swimmer.

Esther Williams posed underwater circa 1948. Courtesy International Swimming Hall of Fame.

After seeing Williams in the Aquacade, MGM signed her to star in a series of swimming movies. Audiences flocked to theaters to see popular films in which Williams performed breathtaking dives and underwater acrobatic scenes. In 1952, she played the lead in the elaborate biopic musical film about Annette Kellerman’s life, <em>Million Dollar Mermaid</em>. More than any other person, Williams deserves credit for popularizing modern synchronized swimming in America.

Like today’s synchronized swimmers, the acrobatic moves Williams performed underwater required rigorous training, agility, and advanced skill. When executing a dive from a 50-ft tower during the filming of <em>Million Dollar Mermaid</em>, Williams broke her neck. She remained in a body cast for over six months before completing the film. But the press habitually downplayed her athleticism and emphasized her svelte figure and beauty. Williams became a favorite pinup girl, further cementing the link between swimming, beauty, and pageantry.

Do the elements of pageantry–having to coat your hair with gelatin, wear cosmetics, and smile–make synchronized swimming any easier? Of course not. In fact, having to maintain an ear-to-ear smile while pumping leg muscles vigorously must present an added challenge. Yet most people subscribe, consciously or not, to the bias that because the swimmers are smiling and look attractive, they are performing not competing in a sport.  The Olympic Games provides an opportunity, every four years, to rethink perceptions of what constitutes sport. The 2008 documentary, <em>Sync or Swim</em>, by filmmaker Cheryl Furjanic addresses some of those concerns as it traces a group of young women swimmers competing for spots on the 2004 U.S. synchronized swim team.

Disempowering the Powerful:Gender, Popularity and Profit

With arms slicing through water like hot blades through soft butter, Michael Phelps won the 100 m Butterfly on Day 7 of the Olympics. The swim earned him a 17th gold medal and 21 Olympic medals. This expanded the record he set a day prior when he became the first man to win the same individual medley (200 m) at three consecutive Olympics. He did it all wearing a Speedo.

The company may profit from Phelp’s gold—surely more than he will. Because of Rule 40, Speedo’s visibility is limited and Phelps, a world-record breaker, cannot capitalize on his achievement by endorsing products right away.

US Olympian Dawn Harper protesting restrictions against sponsorship at the Olympics. (Self-posted on Twitter)

During week one of the Games, several American athletes used social media to call attention to the rule. Tweeting with #WeDemandChange, athletes, including Sanya Richards-Ross and Dawn Harper, protested the unfairness of Rule 40. Some dramatized the protest by taking stark photos of themselves with mouths covered with duct tape on which they wrote “Rule 40.″

The photographs, implying as they do, that these athletes are hostages performing at the world’s most prestigious sporting event are unsettling. Women and African-Americans comprise a core of the most outspoken protesters. Why? The rule affects them disproportionately.

What’s the fuss about Rule 40? Established many years ago to prevent ambush marketing—any unofficial promotion—Rule 40 is an IOC by-law forbidding athletes from promoting personal sponsors 10 days before, during, and 3 days after the Olympics, unless those sponsors are official Olympic partners. http://www.london2012.com/mm/Document/Publications/General/01/25/29/32/rule-40-guidelines_Neutral.pdf
Official partners and supporters hold the potential to profit substantially thus sponsorship rights are extremely valuable. But athletes don’t reap the benefits generated by these partnerships—profits pay for the cost related to the Games themselves. Still, athletes are forbidden from endorsing the sponsors who support them during the Games.

In essence, during the Olympics, athletes are paid not in currency but in honor. That might not seem unfair, at first glance, but the training these athletes undertake for years before qualifying for the Olympics can be unfathomably expensive. Until they attract attention of a sponsor, they (and often their families and communities), foot the bills themselves. Rule 40 lacks uniformity; it affects athletes of smaller, less-revenue-generating sports—especially women’s sports and sports like swimming—far more than sports like basketball or baseball.

When interviewed, Peter Carlisle, who represents Michael Phelps, compared Rule 40 to bullying. Other agents have pointed out that, prior to the Olympics, swimwear manufacturers were required to significantly reduce their logos on swimsuit and caps—greatly reducing brand visibility and prompting them to question the return on their investment. In other more lucrative sports brand logos are more visible.
If sponsors for Phelps, a record-setting gold medal earner and media magnet, worry about the return on their investment, what hope do athletes in smaller sports have that draw less revenue? What impact does this have on women athletes?

Commercialization of sports is a key factor in the marginalization of women’s sports and the reason why some, like women’s beach volleyball, have relied on accentuating sex appeal to attract spectators.

After perusing Getty photos—a primary photo source for images of athletes, Nate Jones wrote the cheeky photo essay, “What if every Olympic sport was photographed like beach volleyball?” The essay pokes fun at the unquestionably sexist professional sports photos of women’s beach volleyball players by following a selection of those photos with pictures male athletes cropped to mimic the photos of women volleyball players. The essay underscores the trivialization of women athletes’ bodies. Presented as faceless torsos wearing bikini bottoms—sometimes labeled “unidentified athlete”—their bodies become eroticized objects for viewers to visually consume. http://www.metro.us/newyork/sports/article/1148979–what-if-every-olympic-sport-was-photographed-like-beach-volleyball

Wearing bikinis—which until this year were the sport’s mandatory uniform—downplays the athleticism of these women, presents them as objects for consumption and obscures the hard training they undertake. Yet, if athletes don’t concede to sponsors who seek to generate profit by presenting them as objects first, and athletes second, they risk losing financial backing.

Men in sports that generate less revenue face a similar issue. Before the 2008 Olympics, Speedo used Phelps to promote its swimsuit Fastskin Pro. Mimicking the quick pace and flashing lights of a dance club, the minimalist, artistic commercials presented brief flashes of Phelp’s body to the beat of dance music.

The provocative ad appealed to both men and women–judging from comments left on various sites–exactly what any brand would hope. On the one hand, the glimpses of Phelps are awe-inspiring, celebrating his impressive physical body. On the other hand, sexuality seeps through the commercial as quick flashes of Phelps’s streamlined body are timed perfectly with the lyrics, “Hold me back, ‘Cuz I’m about to blow.” The ad is incredibly effective, treading the line between showcasing the human body as a work of art and presenting it as a sexually-charged object.

Today, some athletes are affected by measures, like Rule 40, which are meant to protect against blatant commercialization but in effect actually disempower them to capitalize at their most profitable time. What choice do they have but to acquiesce to being treated like objects if that will generate revenue?

Swimming Records Shatter But Stereotypes Persist

When 16-year old Ye Shiwen won the gold in the 400m individual medley, she split the swimming world in half. Not only had she set a world record, but she completed the final 50m freestyle in 28.93 seconds—faster than American Ryan Lochte, who completed the last 50m of the men’s race in 29.10, earning a gold medal.

Some expressed suspicion. Calling her feat “impossible,” some hinted only by doping could Ye Shiwen have swum so swiftly. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-19058712
Others defended the teenager—who had never tested positive on a drug test—claiming that the accusations sprang from jealousy, poor sportsmanship, and a long-standing and subtle bias western nations held toward the Chinese.
After Ye’s first gold-medal swim on Saturday, arguments volleyed back and forth with precision. John Leonard of the World Swimming Coaches Association, pointed to the history of Chinese swimmers doping in the 1990s. Others countered that China had made substantial changes in training techniques and that Chinese women are slimmer and sleeker which aided them in the water. As the controversy stewed for 2 days, Ye Shiwen maintained her innocence. On Tuesday morning, she was vindicated.

Then, that evening, after Ye won a 2nd gold in the women’s 200-m individual medley swimming final, accusations of doping resurfaced. Comments sent to on-line news sources document the heated reactions and moral outrage surrounding the swimmer’s incredible accomplishment. At the time of this post, CNN tallied over 1600 comments–those supporting the teenager and those accusing her. http://edition.cnn.com/2012/08/01/world/asia/china-ye-shiwen-west-petty/index.html

Ye Shiwen isn’t the first young woman to establish a world record in swimming and face skepticism. She isn’t the first woman athlete—and sadly probably won’t be the last—whose accomplishment was marred by mixed reactions and raised underlying international cultural tensions and gender bias to the surface.

Popular Science Monthly, March 1923.

In 1922, Northwestern student and future (1924) Olympian Sybil Bauer became the first woman (recorded) to surpass a men’s swimming record. Competing at a swim meet at St. George, Bermuda, Bauer established 3 world’s records in backstroke; her time of 6:24.8 in the 440 yard shaved 4 seconds off the previous world record (6:28) held by Harold “Stubby” Krueger of Honolulu. The following year, Popular Science Monthly featured an article written by outspoken swimmer Ethelda Bleibtrey, speculating that women might begin surpassing men in other athletic endeavors. Such reflections made conservatives uneasy.

Political cartoon, Chicago Daily Tribune, August 19, 1925, 1. Courtesy, Chicago Daily Tribune.

When Gertrude Ederle became the first women to swim the English Channel—a feat many believed impossible for women—she established a world record. Swimming at 14:31, she beat the previous record (16:23) set by Argentine swimmer Enrico Tiraboschi in 1923, by nearly 2 full hours. In the years following WWI, the best distance swimmers from several nations raced to become the first woman to successfully swim the straight. At that time, American women had only recently won the long-fought battle for political enfranchisement and gender roles were being, to some degree, challenged. Because of lingering resentments from WWI, nationalist tensions also ran high. The swim provided the opportunity for nations to channel animosity into athletic competition. The first woman to swim the Channel promised to bring honor not just to her gender, but to her nation. After failing in a 1925 attempt, American Gertrude Ederle became the first woman to succeed (August 1926). President Coolidge honored her as a national hero.

Welcome parade for Gertrude Ederle, coming up Broadway, New York City, August, 1926. (Library of Congress)

Upon her return, New York City honored Ederle with a city-wide parade, the then-largest in its history, which attracted fans from across the nation. Hoping to catch a glimpse of “Trudy,” people draped themselves over fire escapes and crowded into office-building windows and rooftops.

The British, however, who had always historically reigned supreme in swimming, reacted less enthusiastically to Ederle’s triumph. At the time, few believed that a woman could withstand the difficult Channel swim at all; most simply couldn’t believe that a woman could outdistance a man by nearly 2 hours. Some trivialized her accomplishment, claiming her swim had been undertaken during unusually good conditions. Others cast aspersions. Skeptical British reporters interviewed local skippers and fishermen who speculated that if Ederle had not swum between two tug boats she would have been carried off course. Some fishermen doubted the authenticity of her swim, claiming that she made no westward drift with the ebb tide which would have been impossible on that day.

In a situation similar to that Ye Shiwen recently faced, the news media throughout the western world reported on the controversy in minute detail. Because of Ederle’s German heritage–her parents were immigrants–the German and Austrian press aligned themselves with America. Outraged by the allegations, Germans accused British critics of ethnic bias and resentment from WWI.

Ye Shiwen won two golds racing swimmers from other nations. No one could deny that she won. But some Americans, perhaps embittered by a sluggish domestic economy, were quick to accuse the teen of winning unfairly. Yesterday, she, like Ederle, was vindicated and given credit for her spectacular accomplishment. But it seems striking that 90 years after Sybil Bauer beat the men’s record in 440m backstroke, and 86 years after Gertrude Ederle set a world record in open water swimming, many still react with incredulity that a woman can outperform a man in sport.

How much of the public suspicion over this teenager’s world record stems from gender bias? How much from racial tensions and cultural resentment? It’s undeniable that national tensions still run high and long-established stereotypes about gender and race persist.

Debriefing: Bikinis and Beach Volleyball

Since beach volleyball debuted at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta, some have accused that its uniforms for women are unnecessarily skimpy. During a break from the preliminary beach volleyball games last night, an ad featuring Jennifer Kessy, member of the US women’s beach volleyball team, aired. The short commercial for CoverGirl’s Outlast Lipcolor featured Kessy in a bikini. Until recently such short swimsuits were the required uniform worn in competitive women’s beach volleyball, leading some to question its legitimacy as a sport.

Kessy’s endorsement, “I’m going for the gold. And the pink,” may not have sat well with some groups who oppose the objectification of women that the cosmetics industry has promoted. The Australian Sports Commission has long-described the bathing suit uniforms worn in women’s beach volleyball as “sexploitation,” focusing “attention on the athletes’ bodies rather than for any technological, practical or performance-enhancing reasons” http://www.ausport.gov.au/participating/women/resources/issues/sexploitation
As the diagram from the Fédération Internationale de Volleyball (FIVB) handbook illustrates, the official uniforms for men reveal less of their bodies than the women’s.

Diagrams of regulation uniforms for beach volleyball. FIVB, Olympic Beach Volleyball Tournaments, Specific Competition Regulations, 2004.

In cold weather, players have always been permitted to wear long-sleeved shirts and leggings (preferably under swimsuits). This spring the FIVB modified its rules so players whose cultural beliefs prohibit them from wearing revealing bathing suits are permitted to wear shorts and sleeved tops instead.

The ruling, combined with the cool temperature in London (yesterday’s high hovered near 67° F), led some to fearfully speculate that the Olympic women’s beach volleyball players would compete covered, disappointing spectators. When the US /Australia preliminary match occurred at 11:00 pm last night, the chilled air prompted the Australians to wear leggings and long sleeved shirts under their bikini tops (evoking censure from some fans).

But, this morning, Reuters posted an article that headlined, “Olympics-Beach Volleyball-Women Wear Bikinis with Pride.” The interesting article begins by acknowledging that beach volleyball players face a conundrum: “they have to be sexy to get noticed but they are not taken seriously as sportswomen because they are sexy.” http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/07/29/oly-voll-bvvol-day2-bikinis-idUSL6E8IRM7E20120729

The article commends the women’s teams who continue to compete in bikinis, applauding their confidence in their bodies. It admits that athletes, like American star and bikini-advocate Kerri Walsh, are savvy enough to recognize that their swimsuit-clad bodies fuels media coverage and generates advertising sponsors. In short, they expose themselves to create exposure for their sport.

And what, they ask, is wrong with that? In America, especially, women’s sports are marginalized, taken less seriously, and receive less media coverage than men’s sports. Some feel it’s necessary to adopt any strategy that results in media interest. If the attention they generate by wearing bikinis lures spectators who might not otherwise have watched, and if those viewers develop an appreciation for how hard the athletes work and realize that these women are real athletes, then perhaps the end justifies the means.

Ethelda Bleibtrey (center) posing confidently with rolled stockings, circa 1920. George Grantham Bain Collection

Some Olympians in the past also pushed boundaries, though these many seem minor to us today. Ethelda Bleibtrey, winner of three gold medals in swimming at the 1920 Olympics (100, 300 m freestyle and 4 x 100 m relay) and the first American woman to win an Olympic swimming title, preferred to have bare legs on the beach at a time when public ordinances stipulated that women’s legs be covered. In 1921, still a media darling for her Olympic feats, she was playing beach baseball with members of the Ambassador Swimming Club in Atlantic City. She and the other girls had removed their stockings which violated city laws. Police ordered the girls to either cover themselves or leave the beach. Bleibtrey complied by leaving the beach–she refused to pull on her stockings. Her outspoken action generated publicity. Some may say that the contemporary women’s beach volleyball team is simply doing the same–raising awareness.

Perhaps. Even though CoverGirl’s ad featuring Kessy shows her clad in only a bikini, the choice is justifiable—it is her sport’s uniform. Furthermore, she’s not standing idly on the beach, staring into the sunset, dabbing her lips with color. The ad depicts her actively– jumping, diving and spiking the ball—sending a far more positive message than most cosmetics ads. Her voice-over states: “I’m strong. I’m beautiful. I am a CoverGirl.” Isn’t that a powerful message for women?

Yes! (… and no). Kudos to CoverGirl for choosing to actively showcase Kessy’s athleticism. The company also asked boxer Marlen Esparza, the first American women to qualify for Women’s Boxing in the Olympics, to endorse Outlast. The limited-edition packaging of the products honor both Kessy and Esparza while they compete in the Olympic Games. CoverGirl’s promotion of these strong athletes is undoubtedly a step in the right direction. Yet, undeniably, Kessy’s long and lean body reflects a traditional standard of beauty set by supermodels. What about women—athletes or not—who don’t reflect that idealized standard? Do these ads help change cultural standards?

Perhaps. But progress is slow. In May, in its Femail section the [UK] Daily Mail online featured an article about Britain’s women’s beach volleyball team with photos showing four players practicing in their tiny bikinis on the greens in in Parliament Center. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-2149238/Beach-volleyball-team-stops-traffic-Parliament-square.html#ixzz21xVOXkwn The paper admitted that activity doubled as a promotional ploy and an illustration of increased traffic predicted to occur during the 2012 Games–they knew that bikini-clad women would command attention.

The players draped arms and posed for photographers, providing a front and rear view of their bodies. Clearly, the shots were intended to provoke commentary. And they did. Hundreds of comments poured in. Some remarked with exasperation on the skimpiness of the bikini uniform in general. “Shorts would be more appropriate – looks like an excuse to wear skimpy gear.” “…is this a sport or a bikini competition?”

The majority of the comments, however, critiqued the physical appearance of the women. “These girls look like they need to train harder. They are not exactly lean and mean machines, are they?” “a couple of them look like they need a diet”
“If the athletes had nice bodies maybe their [sic] would not be the complains [sic] about skimpy outfits. In case of these females they should be wearing track suits!!!!”

Women athletes face immeasurable challenges—devoting their lives to training, competing, and even trying to generate interest in their sport (the Association of Professional Volleyball–the organization that sponsors a beach volleyball tour in America–went bankrupt in 2010. It’s since found a new owners). It seems immensely unfair that women athletes have to endure intense scrutiny and severe criticism about their bodies—ironically, often from other women.

Aesthetic Athletics: Objectifying Women 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.” http://www.heraldsun.com.au/sport/london-olympics/leave-leisel-jones-alone-says-giaan-rooney/story-fn9dheyx-1226434277862

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?
Aesthetic Athletics: Objectifying Women Swimmers

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.

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