Jingo Bells

Prime-time pride, manly girls vs. girly girls and fear of a black dream team

As ever, the Olympics also challenged our ideas about womanhood. Back in the '70s and '80s, when women's lib and not steroids shriveled men's genitals, the fear of female power often played itself out as disdain for their physical strength; the games were invariably filled with obligatory cracks about "manly" female athletes (especially the East German swimmers who actually did take male hormones). These days, nobody blinks when a Speedo'd teenage girl boasts trapezoids like Gubna Schwarzenegger's, although when NBC did its profiles of Amanda Beard and Jenny Thompson, it did take care to have them made up and lit to look unbutch. Beard even said she was happy to have appeared in a Maxim spread on female Olympians that purred, "These sexy athletes . . . have spent a lifetime honing their bodies to absolute perfection. The least you can do is gawk." The least? From what I know of the magazine's readers, gawking is the most they can do.

The Athens debate about women's bodies focused once again on gymnastics, a sport that appears to be governed by Lewis Carroll and Humbert Humbert. Long gone are the days when leggy, sometimes voluptuous Soviet women twirled gracefully across the mat. These days, the premium is on cutesy teens, as small and bouncy as crickets, whose pyrotechnic routines are astonishing but inelegant. This prompted Salon's King Kaufman to froth that "Gymnastics tries to reconfigure women's bodies, to keep them childlike. It's sick and wrong." In such words, you could sense a nostalgia (among many men, anyway) for female athletes with the kind of full-figured bodies so hopelessly out of fashion that even Hollywood wants its actresses, J.Lo briefly excepted, to have backsides like teenage boys. You can almost hear studio execs braying, Bring me the ass of Cameron Diaz!

Both the media and public love turning sporting events into morality plays. This has certainly proved true in Athens, where, even before it lost a couple of games, the U.S. men's basketball squad had begun turning from Dream Team into Dream Whip. You heard endless palaver about how the team needed "shooters" and lacked "fundamentals" (although the team's best player, Tim Duncan, is so fundamentally sound he's boring). On ESPN's The Sports Reporters, Adam Schefter claimed, "This group represents all the flash and dash—all the highlight-reel tapes—we've come to dislike." It was hard not to detect a tincture of racial feeling in such complaints against a squad captained by Allen Iverson (!) and filled with young stars like LeBron James, Amare Stoudamire and Carmelo Anthony. If you follow the game, you know that terrific black players are too often hailed for their "athleticism," while less-gifted whites are praised for "knowing how to play the game." Indeed, it was no coincidence that, whenever they talked about the team's dismal three-point shooting, the commentators kept bringing up names like Brent Barry and even the retired Steve Kerr. White guys, it seems, can shoot.

Listening to sports talk, you realized that this team had become the symbol of everything that's supposedly gone wrong with sports—be it the flashy NBA game, our "spoiled" professional athletes or the absolute triumph of commercialism. No matter that other U.S. athletes flaunt corporate logos and tell TV interviewers they like the Olympic Village because they can eat all the free McDonald's they want. No matter that ads enriching Paul Hamm, Carly Patterson, and Michael Phelps (who's already plugging Visa and cell phones) will soon be as inescapable as sales tax. All the anger is aimed at the greedy guys on the Dream Team. Indeed, as I write, I suspect most Americans are rooting for them to lose. It would serve the bastards right.

If they come home without grabbing gold, the Dream Teamers may yet come to envy Rafael Martinez. At least he remained invisible.

John Powers will talk at Housing Works, 126 Crosby Street, August 30 at 7 p.m.

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