Olympic Sex

"Athlete or Sexual Plaything?" asks a USA Today headline, and columnist Ian O'Connor answers with the latter in his article criticizing American athletes for posing in popular pinup magazines. O'Connor's article is representative of a raging media debate about the propriety of female Olympians taking off some or all of their clothes for the pages of FHM, Stuff, and Playboy. From the St. Paul Pioneer Press to The New York Times, the arguments have been mostly one-sided, calling the flesh-baring degrading, disgusting, and dishonorable. Critics say that the Olympics is about national pride, fair competition, and dignified athleticism; it has nothing to do with sex. Um, did we watch the same Olympics? I could not escape the homoeroticism, fetish, and explicit sexuality of 16 days in Greece. If pornography's intent is to arouse, then so-called adult channels can't hold a candle to what NBC delivered: plenty of fodder for this girl's fantasies.

"What does he do that gets you excited, Tim?"

"Uh, just about everything, Al."

Amateur gay porn dialogue? Nope, those were the voices of Olympic commentators Dagget and Trautwig discussing Isao Yoneda before his high-bar routine. And that's just an example of the, um, aural homoeroticism. There was plenty of visual male bonding, too, from beach volleyballer Stein Metzger mounting his teammate Dax Holdren after a match win to underwater camera shots of men's water polo—a tangled aquatic gang bang of Speedoed groins and bare legs.

On the Sapphic side of things, there's no shortage of butch women in sports, regardless of their sexual orientation. When you're strong enough to lift 360 pounds or run with a debilitating knee injury, you're pretty butch. But it was a decidedly different kind of girl who caught my eye this year: Logan Tom, star of indoor women's volleyball and cute dyke extraordinaire. If she's not a lesbian—come on, with that name, that haircut, those hands—then someone had better cast her in The L Word so she can play one on TV.

And then there were the women of beach volleyball. In bikinis. Which is actually their uniform, outlined in Federation Internationale de Volleyball (FIVB) guidelines and explained with phrases like "project a healthy image" and "sun, sea, and sand are forces to be dealt with." It wouldn't seem so glaringly one-sided if the men wore equally skimpy Speedos, but the guidelines prescribe shorts and tank tops for them, which raises suspicions of sexism. I thoroughly enjoyed watching Americans Misty May and Kerry Walsh dig and spike. Sure, I was partial to May, whose ample ass wasn't made for the standard-sized bottoms, thus providing plenty of bare cheek for Walsh to grab and slap when they scored. But those bikinis do not eradicate their amazing athletic ability. They are fierce competitors and hot babes, and one does not discredit the other.

Even before the first bikini made its appearance, there was an abundance of websites devoted to documenting naked or nearly naked athletes, including the man-watching hotolympians.com and wannahaves.nl for Olympische Babes from nine different countries—no translation needed. Thank God for fleshbot.com, or I'd never have found half of them, including blogs filled with stills from men's gymnastics and wrestling, accompanied by snarky sexual comments.

It's undeniable that the Olympics can be a sexually charged viewing experience for some of us. We fetishize athletes' bodies—what they look like and what they can do. These bodies seem to defy laws of speed, nature, gravity. I can see how this serves as an example of what some pundits call the "pornification" of America, but that ignores some of the more complex issues raised when we watch. For women, Olympic bodies offer us alternative body types and beauty aesthetics to covet or adore, different than those we see in fashion, bodies that are stocky and muscular, tall and strong. For the most part, the typical competitor's body is still a rather skinny, unattainable one, but instead of waif-like (which evokes fragility and helplessness), athletic-thin is buff and ripped. It's not that Kerry Walsh just looks hot on the beach; if you got fresh with her at a bar, she could kick your ass. That's sexy.

When some athletes choose to make their sexuality more blatant, reveal it, use it, and flaunt it, critics are ready to take them down. Former Olympic gymnast Dominique Dawes, now president-elect of the Women's Sports Foundation, gave only backhanded support. "It's a personal choice, and if an athlete wants to portray herself in a certain light, it's up to her," said Dawes. "It's not anything I would do, but women have earned the right to make those kinds of decisions." Her seemingly feminist statement about the right to choose is laced with judgment and distance, as if to say, if she wants to make herself look like a slut, that's her choice. I support her, although I wouldn't do it.

The dialogue on this subject dredges up several problematic gender "ideals" and reinforces that tired Madonna/whore dichotomy all over again. Why can a woman only be either an athlete or a sexual plaything, as the USA Today headline posits? Why does an erotic photograph erase a woman's hard work, accomplishments, and ambition? I'm sick of society telling women that if we take our clothes off for pictures, there must be something wrong with us. The implication is that if a woman chooses to represent herself as a sexual being, then she cannot be a person of good judgment, an upstanding citizen, and, in this context, a true Olympic athlete. All this dialogue clearly sends the message to women that chastity equals honor, prudishness equals pride, and our sexual power is dangerous to our values, our careers, and our images. What O'Connor and others are essentially saying is "Role model or porn star?" with no chance that a woman could embody both. Clearly these critics haven't read Jenna Jameson's memoir, which makes a good case that you can.

NBC and its affiliates ogle and fetishize bodies of Olympians to the tune of $1 billion in advertising revenues. Why shouldn't the women (and the men—don't think people of all genders wouldn't cough up serious cash to see Michael Phelps's swimsuit sneak just a little bit lower) have the choice to present themselves, on their terms, in other forms of media and profit from it?

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