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By Lindor Reynolds

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Olympic status should be enough

Baring assets is no tribute to sport

More people saw American skier Lindsey Vonn's Sports Illustrated cover shot than saw her win a gold medal. It's safe to say an even greater number checked out the following week's shot of Vonn in a bikini. The Olympian was stretched out on a sauna bench, her hair slicked back and a come-hither look on her face.

And no, she wasn't wearing a helmet and goggles in either picture.

Biathletes (top left to right): Zina Kocher, Megan Imrie, Sandra Keith, Rosanna Crawford and Megan Tandy in their calendar shot.

RACHEL BOEKEL / CANWEST NEWS SERVICE FILES

Biathletes (top left to right): Zina Kocher, Megan Imrie, Sandra Keith, Rosanna Crawford and Megan Tandy in their calendar shot.

If you missed the pictures, don't worry. They're all over the web. Search "hottest Olympian" or "sexiest Olympian." You'll find them.

Vonn's a professional athlete in the prime of her life. Every muscle is the result of years of training. Should that preclude her from being a pin-up model?

Charlene Weaving, a professor at Nova Scotia's St. Francis Xavier University, wrote her thesis on women athletes posing nude. She now teaches a course on modern Olympics. Weaving says female athletes doffing their clothes is nothing new. She believes it's destructive.

"We're not ready to embrace strong females, women who look powerful. We just have this fear of strong women," Weaving says.

The Olympics are chock full of strong athletes, women who define fitness and courage. But Weaving contends society wants to see them knocked down a peg.

"In order to justify being this skilled, this strong, you have to be depicted as hyper-sexual."

Weaving says there's one reason female athletes go along with the seductive photos.

"They're afraid of being seen as lesbians," she contends. "I don't blame the athletes. You're strong and muscular, and you have to prove you're also feminine. No one is forcing them. They're just trying to cope with the system out there."

In a recent article on people.com, two American athletes discussed their attitudes around nude or near-nude appearances. Lindsey Vonn had no qualms. But snowboard competitor Lindsey Jacobellis disagreed.

Here's what she told the website:

"I don't think I would do that now," she said. "I get way too many little girls who are crazy about snowboarding coming up to me, asking for autographs and advice, and I want to stay a strong role model for them."

Vonn's comments?

"I talked about it with my husband, and I looked at what other athletes had done in the past," she said. "I'm trying as best as I can to promote our sport and make it mainstream."

That's unrealistic, Weaving says.

"You can try to rationalize it by saying you're presenting a positive body image to young girls. How many 10-year-old girls are reading Sports Illustrated?"

Sometimes it goes further and female athletes strip for cash. Five Canadian biathletes, including Manitoba's Megan Imrie, launched a nude calendar two winters ago to raise funds for their Olympic race. To draw attention to their project, the five went in-line skating through a frosty downtown Calgary wearing shorts, race bibs for tops and their biathlon rifles.

"Our sport remains significantly underfunded compared to our competitors," athlete Zina Kocher told the media, "and (is) one of the few winter sports in this country without a title sponsor or personal sponsors."

The women sold 6,000 calendars and raised $100,000. The project failed to attract corporate sponsorship.

If their intent had been to draw attention to a little understood sport, it misfired. If they wanted to demonstrate that Canadian athletes can be sexy, they succeeded.

But what would be the point?

"I just think it trivializes women in sport," Weaving says. "It's damaging. If we're telling women that it's not enough to be a world-class athlete, that you also have to take off your shirt, what's the message there?"

If there is a male athlete working his sexuality at these Olympics, it would be daffy American figure skater Johnny Weir.

With his Lady Gaga- meets-Adam Lambert costumes, he is so far out of the closet you'd need a net to haul him back in. But Weir is having fun. He may end up on the cover of The Advocate (if he hasn't already), but his corset costume and outrageous rose-covered hat are his tweaks at the perception many have of male figure skaters.

He's being brave and bold, but mostly he's having a good laugh at himself and sports fans. As a side note, he's a great skater.

But websites like guyism.com aren't laughing. They're too busy leering at the hotties. Here's a blurb for the site:

"If you're like me, the Winter Olympics isn't exactly must-see TV. Hockey and skiing aside, figure skating, curling, and the biathlon don't exactly rev my engine," it reads.

"At the very least, in the Summer Olympics we have scantily clad woman in track and beach volleyball to quell our perverted appetite. I think I speak for everyone when I say there is far too much clothing involved in the Winter Games."

What follows is a series of photos of attractive Olympians, many of them in a state of undress.

This is not a tribute to athleticism, an acknowledgement of years of dedicated service. These are little boys sniggering, cutting dedicated athletes down to size by focusing on their cup size instead of their medal count.

No one is holding a gun to the heads of female Olympians and forcing them to strip down. But there's something very wrong in a world where our elite athletes have to put on bikinis and big smiles and endure adolescent sniggering all in the name of promoting their sports.

When did winning an Olympic medal stop being impressive enough?

lindor.reynolds@freepress.mb.ca

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 23, 2010 A4

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