Five-ring Circus

Ski Bunnies

Why are so many female Olympic athletes posing in lingerie?

Irina Avvakumova of Russia jumps in the first round of competition during day one of the FIS Women's Ski Jumping World Cup at Zao Jump Stadium on February 9, 2013 in Yamagata, Japan.

Irina Avvakumova of the Russian ski jumping team, in uniform, not sleepwear.

Photo by Adam Pretty/Getty Images

The Sochi Winter Olympic Games have opened to myriad diplomatic snafus: outrage over Russia’s “gay propaganda” laws, treacherous snowboarding courses, and terrifying tap water spouting from hotel faucets. But don’t worry! Sochi authorities have proof that they can offer up a very special Russian brand of warm hospitality: women athletes dressed in tiny flimsy garments, so hot they are guaranteed to melt the snow.

Here, courtesy of an official Russian website, is a presto-chango kind of photo display. See short track speedskater and four-time gold medalist Tatiana Borodulina looking determined and powerful on the track, and now see her in a clingy minidress, transparent in the front and the back! See freestyle skier and silver medalist Maria Komissarova leaping high into the air on the slopes, and then see her in a garter and thong, making that I-am-silently-growling porn face. And the most amazing one, the barely legal Anna Prugova, an ice hockey goalie who in her professional shot is so buffered by uniform and equipment that a tank couldn’t take her down, and in the lingerie shot seems to be suggesting that a helmet and a hockey stick might have more interesting uses. The display makes the Lindsey Vonn Sports Illustrated bikini shoot from the last Olympics look downright wholesome. At least Vonn smiles like a normal person some of the time.

Why the uptick in sports porn? One semi-reasonable justification for derobing winter athletes in advance of the events is so we can see them. Skiers and snowboarders are padded in layers of warm clothing. They go down the mountain in a blur. You can’t even glimpse their expressions as they watch their scores get posted because they usually leave their goggles on. Unlike the figure skaters, the skiers are at a distinct disadvantage in coming alive as actual humans to cheer for. The Vonn photo shoot, gross as it was, probably helped in making her into a flesh and blood sports heroine. Still, men don’t have to strip down in quite the same way to solidify their brand.

And lately the picks are getting cheesier. GQ helpfully discovered the secret to alpine skier Julia Mancuso’s success—“Her lucky underwear”—and then showed it to us. (Right. I’m sure she wears silky underwear with silver studs on the slopes.) The Russians at least came up with a fun reason for their sexxxy shots: a desire to show that “our Russian Olympic team defies stereotype that women in sport are just a heap of muscles and masculine shapes,” as one Russian official put it, in what could be convincing only to Borat.

Here is my own feminist-studies-style explanation of what’s going on: a backlash to the rise of the female gladiator. Once upon a time, the Winter Olympics publicity machine put forward as its feminine ideal little pixies in sparkly outfits. The skaters might have worked just as hard as the skiers and endured just as many injuries. But the image they had to conform to was some combination of virginal and fetching, always on the verge of adult sexuality but never quite there. (Witness teenage Michelle Kwan in her not-a-girl-not-quite-a-woman phase, performing that unfortunate Salome number.) As fantasy, the nubile skaters were supposed to be as manageable as a school-girl manga drawing in a Japanese salaryman’s briefcase, and a threat to no one. Then Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding exploded that fantasy with their off-rink psychodrama and made it harder to believe that the dainty ice girl was quite as delicate as she looked.

In the last few years, NBC and other managers of the Olympics image have tried to revive the old archetype without much luck. This year, the doomed task goes to Gracie Gold, the 18-year-old skater with a name to inspire 1,000 headline puns. Gold’s Sports Illustrated cover shows her soaring through the air like Tinkerbell, sparkles flying everywhere, and NBC is promoting her as the face of the games. But let’s face it, this is mostly because of her actual face. Gold looks like a Disney princess from the pre-postmodern princess days. She is a fine, accomplished skater but not necessarily among the best, even on the U.S. team.

Why not make the faces of the 2014 Olympics the new women’s ski jump team? This intimidating troop has a genuine place in feminist history. They fought hard to get women’s ski jumping qualified at the Olympics. They sacrificed much with little glory and even less money. “We’re still always a step away from bake sales in terms of keeping these girls in jumpsuits,” their communications manager told the New York Times. The iconography is genuinely inspiring. Sarah Hendrickson, who suffered a knee injury and may not be able to compete, has an Instagram feed full of pictures of her flying, lifting weights, attacking terrifying jumps, and healing a busted knee. Couple the ski jump team with the renegades from the last Olympics, the snowboarders, and especially that other Gold—Arielle Gold—and you have a group of women who truly break the mold.

Winter Olympics coverage generally only allows limited archetypes for its athletes and the one assigned to skiers and skateboarders (female gladiator) is easier to swallow than the one assigned to skaters (tender fawn). But of course it’s unfair to pit them against each other. Skaters work just as hard for their sport and some of them read as plenty tough—Sarah Hughes, for example, who won the gold at 16 years old in 2002. The solution really is to hijack both archetypes—teach the audience that Gracie Gold is impressive not because she aims to be “America’s sweetheart,” (no, NBC, it’s not 1950 again every four years) but because she skates so fast you can barely see her take off and land, and that skin-tight neoprene and a bad-ass expression can be just as sexy as lingerie.

Read the rest of Slate’s coverage of the Sochi Olympics.