With Lindsey Vonn, is it the shin or the skin?
The athlete on the stage is talking about playing in pain.
The babe on the website is standing on the side of a mountain in a white bikini and red snow boots.
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.
Or is it cover girl?
On a day when Vonn revealed uncertainty whether she can even ski in these Games after suffering a recent deep shin bruise, she exposed a lot more as a Sports Illustrated swimsuit model.
In one moment Wednesday, a woman who has earned a U.S. women’s record 31 World Cup victories while enduring everything from a sliced tongue to a battered back was talking about hobbling down Whistler Mountain for her five events.
“It’s just managing the pain,” she said. “It’s a matter of dealing with the pain.”
The next moment, she was talking about baring her body for an annual magazine swimsuit issue and website that is famous for its perfect flesh.
“It was a wonderful opportunity,” she said. “I was honored.”
Sadly, she’s right. The state of women’s athletics in America is such that while success is based on ability, popularity is based on beauty. It’s the same at the Olympics, where the only women here who are guaranteed popularity are the ones who compete while wearing dresses.
If you’re not a figure skater and you want to cash in on four years of hard work and somebody asks you to pose for a magazine whose great majority of readers are men, maybe you do it.
You do it even though hanging out half-naked on pages with skimpy models trivializes your strength and skill. You do it even though offering up your body as an object for male consumption is diametrically opposed to the female empowerment symbolized by your sport.
It stinks, but you do it.
In Wednesday’s pre-Olympic news conference, Vonn’s teammates initially embraced her decision.
“It was awesome, it was great to see Lindsey in a bikini, I’ll have to have her sign my copy,” said teammate Julia Mancuso, defending gold medalist in the women’s giant slalom. “It’s really important for all of us to embrace our femininity. It’s nice to be appreciated for more than just our sports.”
But later, Mancuso admitted it was “weird” that while Vonn has never won an Olympic medal of any sort, it was Vonn who was on the cover of the Sports Illustrated preview, then later in the swimsuit issue.
“It was disappointing . . . when I won my gold medal in Turin, I didn’t get a lot of press,” Mancuso said. “I didn’t get the cover of SI.”
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.
The women have their own professional basketball league, but when is the last time you’ve seen gritty MVP Diana Taurasi doing any commercials? In the last decade, the U.S. women’s soccer team has made a lasting impact on many lives, but didn’t the fever really start when one of them celebrated a World Cup winning goal by taking off her shirt?
Vonn, with 10 sponsors to feed, posed for the photos because it was good business. A shame, but true, even as her teammates were trying to rationalize the spread as being a great example to . . . children?
“I think it’s great, little girls can see a beautiful, athletic, strong powerful female body among all these rail-thin models,” Kaylin Richardson said.
Um, little girls aren’t reading that issue of that magazine. There are lots of other female-centered publications in which Vonn, as well as fellow Sports Illustrated Olympic posers Lacy Schnoor and Hannah Teeter, could have shown off their bodies.
This was not about being role models. This was about earning the respect, and riches, that they would have not received otherwise.
“Some people say you are objectifying your body,” Richardson said. “I think it’s more of a celebration.”
A woman who could potentially be the Winter Olympics’ most decorated athlete will also be its most Googled, by folks who care nothing about her athleticism and everything about her breasts.