Sex in Skiing Sells, But It Makes the Los Angeles Times Cranky

Olympic Skier Lindsey Vonn Poses in Bikini for Sports IllustratedLet me just say right up front: If I was a professional athlete with an awesome body and Sports Illustrated asked me to pose in bathing suit, I most likely would. (For the record, I’m not, I don’t, and they aren’t.) But the Los Angeles Times’s sports columnist Bill Plaschke, who doesn’t have an awesome body, clearly wouldn’t. And he doesn’t think Lindsey Vonn should have, either. In a superficial, hypocritical, and just plain misguided column today, he criticizes Vonn for shedding her speed suit and appearing in SI in a bikini. Three words, Bill: Get over it.

Plaschke writes, “The athlete on the stage is talking about dealing with the pressure of a debilitating shin injury and suffocating Olympic hopes.

“The babe on the website is posing seductively in a white fur wrap too small for her chest and hot pants too tight for her bottom.

“Only in American women’s sports would these two divergent creatures be the same person. Only at the Olympics would such a mix of messages be celebrated.

“Meet Lindsey Vonn, the U.S. Olympic team’s star skier.”

(Plaschke’s big on drama. He likes bold, one-sentence paragraphs.)

There are at least two issues here. One is whether he’s right about this being “only in American women’s sports, only at the Olympics”, the other is whether an athlete baring skin erodes the importance or gravitas of their accomplishments.

Skier Lindsey Vonn on the Cover of Sports IllustratedTo the first…please. America is the country that perfected the cartoonish art of using sex to sell. Like it or not, we trot out boobs, booties, skin, flirtation, anything we can to attract attention and break through the clutter. It’s cheap, it’s sometimes tawdry, it’s sometimes funny, but it is not in any way limited to women’s sports or the Olympics. This is an era where leaking a celebrity sex tape can enhance your career, for crying out loud. Fascination with sex is universal, even if the higher mind likes to pretend otherwise. I wonder how long Bill stared at Vonn’s hot pants until he concluded they were too tight for her bottom. Shoot, by choosing to write about Lindsey’s exposed skin more than her injured shin, Plaschke himself is resorting to using sex to sell his column, the very thing he attacks in her.

To the second point, there’s legitimate debate. You could argue, as I think Plaschke is, that an athlete should be portrayed, judged, and celebrated only through their accomplishments on the field of play. Fair enough. There’s merit in that. America has become woefully narcissistic and exhibitionist and the level of discourse is worse for it. You could also argue that athlete’s bodies are to be celebrated—they’re what enables such amazing feats, after all—and that there’s no shame (indeed, there should be pride) in exposing them. In fact, there’s a long history of it. Football player Jim Brown showed the full monty to Playgirl readers in the 1970s. In 1996, Life Magazine ran a cover photo essay called “Naked Power, Amazing Grace”. Last October, ESPN devoted a whole issue to the athlete’s body.

Plaschke also tries to spread discord amongst the U.S. Ski Team women. Now, I wasn’t at the press conference yesterday, so I don’t know the full context of their remarks, but he implied that Julia Mancuso is disgruntled over the media attention Vonn is getting. “It was disappointing,” he quotes her saying. “When I won my gold medal in Turin, I didn’t get a lot of press. I didn’t get the cover of SI.”

He goes on:

“Not only that, but during the news conference, even though Mancuso was sitting on Vonn’s left, it was as if she didn’t even exist, all the cameras and initial questions being focused on the woman with the flowing blond hair and sparkling smile.

“ ‘The attitude of our team is that everyone should be promoted,’ Mancuso said. ‘So, yeah, it’s a little disappointing.’

“It’s America. Women athletes are granted equal access to fields and funds, but you can’t legalize perception. The most famous female athletes are the prettiest female athletes, period.”

Get a clue, Bill. The reason all the questions are being directed to Vonn is because she is the winningest American woman ski racer, period. She has 31 World Cup victories in her career. Mancuso has four. This season, Vonn won the first five downhills. Vonn is the reigning overall World Cup champion and owns the World Cup title for downhill and Super G. This season, Mancuso finished 27th overall on the World Cup, 24th in downhill, 27th in Super G, and 42nd in slalom. Could the fact that Vonn is kicking ass and no other American skier is coming close be the reason Vonn is on the cover of SI (in her downhill suit, FYI) and Mancuso isn’t?

Skier Julia Mancuso's Website Art BikiniHomo sapiens celebrate beauty, and given a choice between two people to engage with, we almost always choose the one who’s most aesthetically pleasing. It’s biology, it’s DNA. We associated symmetrical faces and sculpted bodies with health, vigor, and genes that give our offspring the best chance of surviving. Better-looking people get more promotions, have higher salaries, and, from what I can tell, get more Facebook friends. Study after study has shown that we’re attracted to the attractive. You can’t fight it. And Vonn’s sin, it seems, is to embrace that reality and make it hers.

Well, for what it’s worth, she’s not the only one. Olympian snowboarders Hannah Teter and Clair Bedez, along with skier Lacy Schnoor, also posed for SI. Julia Mancuso’s personal website home page features a giant cartoon illustration of Mancuso on her stomach in a bikini, showing booty, wearing ski boots. On her gallery page, there are more photos of her in swimsuit than her skiing. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with this—I’m just saying, don’t be a hypocrite and attack one woman while ignoring the same thing in another.

ESPN Magazine's Gallery of Naked AthletesCheck this beautiful gallery of athlete’s bodies from ESPN. LINK

Behind the Scenes Video of ESPN Magazine's The Body IssueHear what the athletes themselves say about posing nude in this behind the scenes video of EPSN’s The Body issue. LINK

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