The Olympics: selling sexiness

In the late 1800′s there was a growing interest among women in sport, especially cycling, actually leading to some modification in clothing (bloomers!).   However, then and even now, there is an undercurrent of discrimination in sport.  For example, 19th and 20th century physicians linked athletics to childbirth complications, infertility, mannish characteristics and “heterosexual failure” (lesbianism).  In 2009, the  International Ski Federation voted against the inclusion of women in the 2010 Winter Olympics because the sport could cause “damage to their uteri or lead to infertility”.  (what about male fertility?!!)  Today, women are still not allowed to ski jump in the Olympics— the only men-only event!

A newer, more troubling  phenomenon has raised its sexist head at this year’s Olympics:   the sex appeal of female athletes!  Why is it necessary for female athletes to appear in photos wearing minidresses and lingerie?  Why are fashion models participating in the march of the athletes?   Glamorous female athletes get a lot of screen time during the Olympics but rarely during the rest of the year.

In order to raise sponsorships, athletes have to capitalize on media exposures but should “glam” outweigh “athleticism”?  According to a Chicago-based agency, Engage Marketing, “For male athletes, it’s primarily about their performance.   And for female athletes it’s definitely as much about their looks as it is about their performance.”

We teach our children– male and female– that they can participate in any sport they want.   Despite the passage of Title IX in 1972 requiring female sports to get equal public funding, female athletes are still encourage to flaunt their sex rather than their power as they earn endorsements.

To learn more about the history of women in sports, visit Bad Girls Can’t Win, an article that can be found  on page 14 of the magazine ATRIUM, a publication by Northwestern Medical Humanities and Bioethics Program.