Five-Ring Circus

Allison Stokke Is the Most Popular Pole Vaulter in the World, and I Wish That Weren’t So Depressing

Meet Allison Stokke. She’s an American track-and-field athlete, 27 years old, a California native. In 2007, she was one of the country’s top high school pole vaulters. In college, she competed for the University of California–Berkeley, where she also studied sociology.

Stokke didn’t make it to the 2012 Olympics in London, failing to clear the opening height at the Olympic Trials. This year, she missed her chance even to qualify for the Olympic Trials, falling about a foot short of the minimum standard. Stokke is currently ranked No. 168 in the world, according to the website All Athletics. She has 169,000 followers on Instagram.

This is Jenn Suhr. She’s an American pole vaulter, too, and a defending Olympic gold medalist. The 34-year-old earned a silver in Beijing and holds the indoor world record. She has won umpteen national championships. She has 13,000 Instagram followers.

Stokke, who sports the luscious brown hair and olive skin of a Disney princess, models for Nike Women and Athleta. She also recently teamed up with GoPro to shoot a series of videos that bring the viewer along as she soars through the air. The ad below drew more than 6.5 million views on YouTube.

Suhr, who’s not bad looking herself, has reportedly never had an American sponsor. This video of her setting the indoor world record boasts, as of this moment, 306 views on YouTube.

It would be easy to pit these women against each other. (Hey, I kind of just did!) But the point of this comparison isn’t to suggest that the model/athlete is stealing money from the gold medalist. Rather, the same sexist deadweight burdens both Stokke and Suhr in different ways.

Stokke was shoved into the public eye in 2007, when a track-and-field journalist posted an image of the high schooler online, her midriff exposed and tanned muscles rippling. A smitten ogler emailed that picture to blogger Matt Ufford, whose now-defunct website With Leather specialized in the bro-ish combo platter of sports and beautiful women. Upon learning this particular lust object was 18, Ufford posted her photograph as part of a blog post headlined “Pole Vaulting Is Sexy, Barely Legal.” That item included the lines: “[m]eet pole vaulter Allison Stokke … Hubba hubba and other grunting sounds.”

The internet had an orgasm. Stokke’s likeness circulated through blogs, message boards, and fan forums. She instantly claimed a place of honor in the internet’s garbage link economy, where her toned body continues to advertise such content atrocities as “The 30 Hottest Female American Athletes of All Time” and “20 Incredibly Hot Pole Vaulter Pics.”

As Kate Fagan reported in a piece published last month by ESPNW, the then-18-year-old Stokke received infinity friend requests on Facebook, her popularity having jammed the website’s counting mechanism. Anonymous users slimed her email inbox with sexual fantasies and impersonated her on social media. The Washington Post and the L.A. Times ran stories about the lissome young athlete whose privacy had suddenly been torn to shreds.

At the time, Stokke told the Post the attention “just all feels really demeaning. I worked so hard for pole vaulting and all this other stuff, and it’s almost like that doesn’t matter.” She added, in the L.A. Times, that her unasked-for celebrity felt “a little creepy and a little scary.”

Nine years later, she’s changed her thinking. “I’m trying to figure out how to reclaim [the sexualized attention] and own it and push it in the right direction,” Stokke told Fagan. No longer resisting the internet’s inexorable hand, she’s leaned into her phenotype, refashioning herself as a dewy lifestyle guru. She says that picture from 2007, which was posted without her knowledge or permission, “is my alter-ego and sometimes I feel like I use it for a positive force.”

Stokke’s “positive force” quote presages an uplifting next chapter of her life. She’s melded her physical assets and her athleticism into a hybrid career, one that allows her to do what she presumably loves. Perhaps she’s even discovered that she loves both modeling and pole vaulting! By profiting from her looks when it suits her—by consenting in prelimited ways to her sexualization—Stokke appears to be living life on her terms.

Yet there’s something depressing in the quote, too. It evokes compromise, a forced smile. Stokke’s beauty has seeped into her athletic persona, where it’s helped her, to be sure. But it would be nice if it felt like she’d had more of a choice.

I’m not mad at Stokke, who’s endured a heap of sexist scrutiny, but I do feel bad for Suhr. A tech company gave a high-profile endorsement deal to an American female pole vaulter, and it’s not the American woman who just won the Olympic gold medal in the pole vault. That has to hurt.

The conversation around beautiful female athletes reminds me of the one around unpaid interns. Being one is a drag. Being displaced by one—well, that’s also a drag. Women’s sports overflow with competitors, some not yet professionally successful and some extraordinarily accomplished, who owe a portion of their fame and wealth to physical loveliness. That reality should disturb both the model-esque women struggling to be taken seriously and those who find opportunities harder to come by as a consequence of being ridiculously hot rather than intergalactically hot.

It’s annoying that Suhr doesn’t get more attention, maddening that we inhabit a planet that showers additional dividends on genetically affluent people, and dismaying that the cultural status quo identifies women as sex objects first and human beings second. Stokke and Suhr stand at opposite ends of the same pole. The forces that devalue one as a record-breaking pro reduce the other to her pretty face.

“Stokke is not a victim,” the ESPNW profile emphasized, noting that “on this point, she is adamant, almost desperate.” Calling her an “improper beneficiary” probably wouldn’t thrill her either. Maybe it’s best to think of Stokke as someone who’s cobbled together a partial victory in a rigged system, who’s found a way to “win” by giving the losers what they want.

See more of Slate’s Olympics coverage.