When she competes, Allison Stokke’s entire focus is the path in front of her, a narrow stretch of crushed rock leading to a bar balancing between stanchions that soar toward the sky. And when she dashes down that runway, her hands grasping a 13-foot pole that will propel her, head over heels, she doesn’t even notice the explosion of flashes from hundreds of cameras focused on her.
Stokke, who will graduate soon from Newport Harbor High School in Newport Beach, is a straight-A student and is among the best pole vaulters her age in the country, having earned a track and field scholarship to UC Berkeley.
But intelligence and athletic ability aren’t what made her the most-watched athlete at the state high school track and field championships in Sacramento on Friday.
It was the Internet.
Stokke happens to be physically attractive, with shiny dark hair; flawless olive-colored skin; a wide, bright smile; and the toned 5-foot-7 frame of a well-trained athlete -- and that’s why her name has become among the most searched on the Internet, making her a flashpoint for debate about 1st Amendment rights and who can post what about whom in cyberspace.
One day she was just another accomplished high school athlete. The next, she was the topic of media reports from London, Spain and Italy; her YouTube video got nearly 200,000 views; and photos of her were posted on college message boards around the country and linked to by bloggers around the world.
Keith Richmond, chief executive of Break.com, has a term he uses for the instantly famous: “e-lebrities.” His site bills itself as an “entertainment channel for guys fueled by user-created media.”
“It’s amazing how quickly someone can go from obscurity to fame,” Richmond said. “Most of the time those becoming e-lebrities are seeking the publicity. But sometimes it’s accidental.”
Athletic and attractive typically make a titillating combination. Tennis star Anna Kournikova’s beauty made her an Internet champion, yet she never won a major tournament singles title in a pro career that spanned from 1995 to 2003.
Stokke, 18, said she became aware of her popularity a few weeks ago, when she started receiving e-mails from friends across the country who had seen photos of her on various websites, some in displays clearly designed to be sexually suggestive.
She hadn’t posed for the pictures, either. Most of them show Stokke at competitions wearing the type of outfits favored by many of the participants.
But some of the message-board comments, Stokke said, “were pretty rude.”
Her parents, Allan and Cindy, were unaware of the budding controversy until their daughter called a family conference and showed them a few of the sites.
“How did I feel? A little angry and concerned,” Cindy said. Allan, a lawyer, immediately started investigating what legal avenues might be available.
Of particular concern was the site allisonstokke.com, which appeared to be Stokke’s own Web page. It wasn’t. Yet the site had posted about a dozen photos of her.
With a phone call and a letter, Allan Stokke had the site shut down. Visitors now are greeted by a “Former Unofficial Allison Stokke Fan Page” headline and a posting that reads, “Farewell. Sorry for having contributed to the unwanted attention, Allison. We think you’re a phenomenal athlete and wish you the best of luck in your academic and athletic endeavors.”
Plenty of sites featuring her image remain, however, and Allan constantly monitors the situation, focusing his efforts on identifying potential stalkers.
Allison Stokke says she tries to let the vulgar comments “roll off my shoulders” but admits that being leered at, even by strangers over a computer, “is a little creepy and a little scary.”
Her father says the family is not in “absolute fear,” but, he adds, “we have some caution. Allison is locking the doors all the time now, and her mother and I want to make sure things don’t degenerate further. She is an athlete not trying to gain attention. I think she has resolved in her mind it is one of those things that goes with the territory.”
Experts in 1st Amendment and Internet law say the family has little control over where or how photos of Stokke are used, even those taken of her when she was a minor.
“If somebody puts up a picture taken by someone else, the photographer can sue -- though it’s not clear he’d always win -- but Allison Stokke can’t sue,” said Eugene Volokh, a UCLA professor of 1st Amendment law.
Just as a newspaper is allowed to publish a photo from a track and field event, so can anyone who takes a shot with a camera phone and posts it on a blog -- even if sexually explicit comments accompany the images.
Were Stokke physically threatened, Volokh said, “it is a different story,” but if “some guy says he has a fantasy about her, that’s really creepy and maybe he’d better be watched, but that alone is not going to strip him of his 1st Amendment rights.”
Parry Aftab, a Irvington-on-Hudson, N.Y., lawyer who specializes in issues of cyber crime, privacy and abuse, said Stokke’s predicament is “what happens when you accidentally reach the popular blogger or luck out and Google catches it just at the right time. Your profile shoots to the top of search engines, and all bets are off.”
At times, Aftab said, parents are unwittingly to blame. “Because they’re really proud of their daughter the gymnast or their son the wrestler, they post a picture of their child, and all of a sudden this image is on somebody else’s site.”
Occasionally, attorneys are successful pleading their cases to Internet service providers, and sites are reined in when threatened with violating their service agreements. But, Aftab added, “In this case the photos are already everywhere, so it would be trying to catch a river in your hand.”
A few photos of Stokke away from competition -- with friends, and at the beach -- are now making the rounds, but she hasn’t modeled or posed for calendars as other athletes have.
Whereas former Olympic swimmer Amanda Beard recently posed for Playboy, all Stokke did was participate in open-to-the-public track meets and post a short clip on YouTube with some training tips.
Stokke’s personal coach, Kevin Magula, said the YouTube posting was prompted by a willingness to share what had worked for her. “Pole vaulting is a pretty insular community,” he said. “Everybody helps everybody else.”
As for all the attention his protege is receiving, Magula said, “I don’t do the Internet searches anymore. I just don’t want to look at them. But what I saw was more good quotes than bad. But the bad ones? Pretty bad.”
The Stokkes believe the rage started when a candid photo of Allison at a meet -- dressed for competition in spandex shorts and a tight tank top that exposed her midriff and adjusting her pony-tail as her pole rests on her right shoulder -- was posted as part of a track and field report. But it took off from there, soon being featured on such websites as WithLeather.com and a MySpace “Allison Stokke Fans” page in which various photos of her flow from top to bottom, showcasing her figure.
“Legally, probably nothing can be done unless someone steps further over the line,” Allan Stokke said. “We did make efforts with a Facebook address that was sending out comments as if Allison were the one doing it. We got that stopped.”
Added Cindy Stokke: “We will take stronger action about it if it becomes a risk to her or we can find any kind of law broken. The Internet is pervasive now, and we’re trying to keep an eye on it. But that’s not easy. And for female athletes I think it’s much more difficult.”
At the Southern Section Masters track meet at Cerritos College last week, two officials said that a media credential request had been received, and denied, from a Brazilian men’s magazine.
Katelyn Beighton, a Los Alamitos High senior also competing in Sacramento, says fellow vaulters are mostly amused by the swirl of interest over the Stokke pictures.
“As long as it isn’t bashing the sport,” Beighton said, “in the long run the publicity can be good. On the other hand, all the camera guys can be kind of awkward. They get in her face, smile, walk away and then do it again. I think it’s kind of weird, those pictures on all those Internet sites.”
Mishelle McNamara, a Covina High senior, said she and Stokke laughed about the situation. “I bet a lot of people never heard of women’s pole vaulting until Allison, basically,” McNamara said. “And she’s got good people around her watching out for the really bad stuff.”
Coach Magula said a lesson had been learned.
“If you are good at something and are an attractive female, you will draw attention whether you want it or not,” he said. “She has great potential. If she continues improving at college and beyond, there will be a lot more publicity.
“She’s 18 now, going off to college. She’s just going to have to deal with it.”