It’s safe to say that Olympic skier Lindsey Vonn, who’s scheduled to make her Vancouver debut on Wednesday, has upped her male viewership with her extensive spread in Sports Illustrated’s latest swimsuit issue. [Update, Feb. 17: In her first race of the Winter Games, Vonn took the gold medal in the women’s downhill.] In the 45 photos posted on SI.com, Vonn offers up the fantasy of Vail mistress by vamping her way through all the bikini clichés: bikini in the snow, bikini in bed, bikini next to big whirring machine, bikini (whoops!) slipping down, bikini in the sauna, legs slightly spread, etc. It’s appalling, really, that the poster girl for the U.S. Olympics team, a woman whose promise is compared to Michael Phelps’, should behave for all the world like a Playboy bunny. Or at least it’s appalling until we consider the alternative for a female Winter Olympian: a role as a pixie whose notion of sexy involves sparkly outfits and blue eye shadow.
For the last few Winter Games the figure skaters have served as the darlings of American Olympics coverage. In the last decade, much of the publicity has gone to Michelle Kwan, who attended her first Olympics at the vulnerable age of 13. During the mid-1990s, Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan sucked up all the attention with their on the rink, off the rink hysterical dramas. Watching pairs skating these last few nights has reminded me of what the figure skating narrative is all about: tender young fawns gliding to maudlin music, getting thrown around, and landing on frail ankles. The vibe is more Virgin Suicides than professional sports and is thus, from the teach-your-daughters point of view, problematic.
This year, for various reasons, the United States does not have a figure skating star who has captured the media’s heart. The Japanese and South Koreans dominate the competition, with the Chinese and Russians not far behind. Instead, the American media have settled for Vonn, a 25-year-old hearty blonde whose legs—in the nonbikini photo shoots—look like they could easily shove a truck down a hill. Vonn, too, has shown some vulnerability in her pre-Olympics media opportunities. She went on the Today show last week to confess she had a “deep muscle bruise” that made it difficult even to put on her ski boot. But this was not the bury-your-head-in-your-partner’s-chest-and–manage-a-brave-smile operatic vulnerability that the skaters are so good at. Instead, it was the kind of honest emotionalism you might hear from professional football players if they were free to talk about their injuries. The end result was just to increase the legend of Vonn as a tough broad who will ski through any amount of pain. (She has since said she is OK to compete.)
No doubt, female figure skaters train with just as much grit and determination as skiers. But the Olympics—particularly the Olympics as covered by network television—allows for a limited number of tropes, and the one assigned to skiers (female gladiator) is far preferable to the one assigned to skaters (tragic nymph). Feminist academics have long agonized over what little girls learn by idolizing figure skaters, as Ellyn Kestnbaum explains in Culture on Ice: Figure Skating and Cultural Meaning. The sport, they argue, rates femininity over talent, so Harding lost to Kerrigan, and then Kerrigan succumbed to the daintier Oksana Baiul. They are weepy heroines, trapped in a fairy tale—ice princesses spinning for gold. They dress like music box ballerinas, in outfits that suggest both prude and tart. Skating rules forbid bare midriffs and require “skirts and pants covering the hips and posterior.” Skaters have played with this rule by interpreting “pants” as nude tights and by wearing skirts that cover the posterior when the skater is standing still but fly up when they jump.
To be sure, not every female figure skater plays this game. When Sarah Hughes won the gold as a 16-year-old in 2002, she basically acted her age. But the barely legal aesthetic is nonetheless pervasive in skating, probably reaching its apex in what has become the most iconic figure skating photo ever, of 16-year-old Michelle Kwan performing Salome at the 1996 World Championship. Kwan had ranked fourth the previous year and was puzzled by what went wrong. The problem, she decided, was that the judges were looking for a “ladies’ champion,” not a girls’ champion. So Kwan took on the role of the biblical temptress, putting on a black outfit with gold chains hanging off it. She got around the midriff rule with a nude-colored cutout. She pulled her hair into a tight bun and swiveled her hips during the routine to signal “maturity.” The resulting look is somewhere between little girls’ dress-up and Thai brothel. The photos look like they should be confiscated by the FBI. There’s no doubt that in the realm of female sexuality, the Lindsey Vonn photos—which show a hot 25-year-old looking 25—are the healthier model. She doesn’t have to dress up like a lady; she is one.
There have been other Olympians in the Lindsey Vonn mold. Picabo Street, a friend of Vonn’s, won a gold medal in the 1998 Winter Olympics. Speed skater Bonnie Blair is tied with Apolo Ohno as the American with the most medals in the Winter Olympics. Hannah Kearney, who won the gold in moguls this week, seemed deeply appealing, showing up for her post-race interview swinging her sneakers. But their fame does not tend to stick. The skaters hog all the glory, performing in shows, appearing in commercials into a ripe old age. Dorothy Hamill is still a household name and was just hired by Vaseline to shill their new face cream. Bonnie Blair, despite her record, is mostly unknown. Street is retired and raising her children.
Vonn, however, has more star potential. She already has a lucrative sponsorship from Red Bull. She has a soap opera all her own, with a father who disapproves of her husband, Thomas Vonn, who is also her coach. The details of her life story suggest she’s built to last: She does push-ups in the aisles of airplanes, she listens to T.I.’s “Dead and Gone” to get pumped up for her races, she fell so hard in 2006 that she was sure she’d end up in a wheelchair and instead she was up and skiing 48 hours later. She’s also beautiful but not in the Anna Kournikova mode: She’ll never be accused of being a hyped-up beauty who gets more attention for her looks than her athletic performance merits.
One of the reasons skaters have enduring appeal is that they get to show their bodies. The camera lingers on their theatrical expressions, their arched backs, their perfect calves. We watch them as they wait to receive their scores, smiling and weeping on camera for minutes on end. Skiers, meanwhile, charge down the mountain so fast you can barely see them. They’re also covered up from head to toe, with even their expressions hidden behind goggles. Unless NBC makes her the subject of a soft-focus feature, you might not get to see a skier’s face until she’s standing at the podium receiving her medal. For those still offended by Vonn’s photo shoot, think of it this way: By posing in a bikini, she has just evened the playing field.