I’ve never really been that “into” sports. I’ve been to two major league baseball games in my whole life, and both times I persisted in saying things like “Hitting’s kind of boring, don’t you think?” and “I like it when they catch and throw. I wish they did more of that.”
And though I played soccer competitively for years, I often empathize way too heavily with the goalies of both teams to root effectively against either.
I did go through a brief, torrid love affair with Australian Football, but that may have just been me being a Sports Hipster (“Oh, Aussie Rules? You’ve probably never heard of it.”)
But Jesus Christ, am I into the Olympics.
Last Saturday night found me and my housemates holed up on the couch, intently watching NBC’s tape-delayed recap of the US vs. Australia women’s beach volleyball game. Bek and Tina aren’t into sports, either, so we were all kind of shocked by our own enthusiasm. I believe at one point we may have chanted “U! S! A! U! S! A!” which never needs to be mentioned again.
In between all the screaming, though, we all started to say the same thing.
“Wow,” Bek said as Misty May-Treanor went in for a dig. “Her bottoms are certainly … short.”
“Sexist,” I deadpanned.
“It’s not sexist!” she snapped back at me. “Just … don’t they not have to be that short anymore?”
We all watched in silence for a minute as the camera did a slow, lingering pan down Misty and Kerri’s traditional post-point mutual ass slap. Almost in unison, our heads cocked to the side. If Synchronized Queer Reluctant Objectification were an Olympic event, we could have at least made it to trials.
“Welp,” Tina said. “I’m not complaining.”
And neither, of course, was the rest of the country. For some reason, beach volleyball inspires this bizarre mouth breathing from every media covering the Olympics. When the news broke that Keri and Misty were planning on wearing long-sleeve cover-ups because of the cold London weather, people flipped the fuck out. The New York Daily News stepped in to reassure everyone, confiding:
"This could have been a sartorial disaster, a programming blunder, except that the city of London has heated up considerably, climate-wise, in the last couple of days. The two-time gold medalists already practiced Tuesday night in bare midriff at the venue, and May-Treanor says they are leaning toward their skimpiest apparel."
Well, thank God for that.
Despite my own completely shallow appreciation of the view, there’s something about this coverage that rubs me the wrong way. It’s similar to (though obviously completely separate from) all that bullshit about Gabby Douglas’s hair or Liesel Jones’s weight; for women in sports, appearance often takes just as much precedent for commentators as athletic prowess.
Unlike gymnastics or swimming, though, beach volleyball seems to be the only event in which women are overtly sexualized. Maybe it’s because of the associated contexts of the sport; it’s rare to see a half-drunk coed flopping charmingly around on a balance beam or beasting a 25-meter butterfly.
By contrast, those of us who made bad decisions in our long-past youths (me) may recall a time when we thought it appropriate to try to spike balls at our freshman dorm crushes while wearing a none-too-sturdy bikini top.
Before I started watching professional beach volleyball in earnest, I definitely associated the sport with wardrobe malfunctions and the sand-burn sting of regret. I, however, got over it. Lots of people seem to be having trouble doing the same.
This is especially odd to me because of the uniform changes that the FIVB authorized this year. No more compulsory bathing suits: Instead, women could wear shorts and a T-shirt just like the male beach volleyball players. Some women, like the eternally badass Natalie Cook, chose to wear sports bras over long-sleeved athletic shirts (though she put on a skimpier version later).
Others, like Kerri and Misty, chose to continue wearing the itsy-bitsies that had delighted viewers (and terrified President Bush for years). According to them, wearing fewer layers means fewer chances of sand-burn, which I find surprising but not impossible.
And I’m really not averse to being nearly naked in public or seeing women nearly naked. If Kerri and Misty feel more comfortable and more capable of ass kicking in their skivvies, more power to them. But considering their recent gripes about how much they hate waxing their bikini lines, I wonder how natural the uniform could possibly feel.
Kerri told Allure: "I hate getting waxed. Waxing makes me want to punch someone in the face. But I don’t want to be self-conscious and worry about my bikini line when I’m playing, so [I use] lasers."
Okay, for one thing: Getting one’s bathing suit-bits waxed is not that bad. Some people even fall asleep during the process. Professional sports, on the other hand, seem like kind of the worst when it comes to sheer, agonizing pain.
If an Olympic champion athlete thinks that the pain of having a friendly, well-groomed woman apply hot wax to their nether regions is bad enough to punch a stranger in the face, maybe being self-conscious about a few stray hairs is a viable alternative.
Except, again, that beach volleyball is a “sexy sport.” As British athlete Denise Johns told the Sunday Times, the FIVB outlined the original women’s uniforms with their aesthetic allure in mind. Even a report by the Australian Sports Commission slammed the practice, sniping, “Women’s beach volleyball, on the other hand, has introduced uniforms intentionally to focus attention on the athletes’ bodies rather than for any technological, practical or performance-enhancing reasons.”
I can’t imagine that the same people who originally made a rule that women couldn’t wear bikini bottoms “exceeding six centimeters at the hip” would be all too keen on some bathing suit side-bush.
This fixation on the uniforms (and on the acceptable maintenance of the hair around them) strikes me as the officials’ desperate, last-ditch attempt at retaining some sort of bizarre femininity at an event that should reduce athletes to their physical bests.
I’ve never participated in a sport where I looked even remotely attractive, or even particularly gendered one way or the other. When I do drag my ass off the couch and into an athletic activity, I’m usually trying to reduce chafing and not die of heat stroke. My perceived femininity is not high on my priority list.
But Misty and Kerri, with their Olympic manicures and perfectly maintained bikini lines, have emerged as a sort of non-threatening, attractive introduction to the world of professional beach volleyball.
Their competitor, April Ross, commented to the San Francisco Chronicle, “[The uniform] draws [viewers] in. Once they see the athleticism of the sport, they’re hooked on it.” In other words, the dudes come for the ass, but they stay for the spikes.
If Kerri were rocking a sweet armpit-goatee, I wonder if they -- or, for that matter, the sponsors -- would come as quickly. That conventional sexiness has become such an intrinsic part of the sport that any deviation from the norm would probably seem threatening (or downright unprofessional).
I don’t doubt that the women’s beach volleyball team feels most at home in their familiar uniforms. But if the trappings of the sport were a little less focused on their bodies, maybe they’d have less to worry about in terms of waxing-induced assault charges.
Female athletes shouldn’t be held responsible for the sexual comfort of their fans. Yet here they are, gritting their teeth through bikini waxes and withstanding endless, useless commentary on weather-related wardrobe changes, waiting to take home the goddamn gold.
Kate is having a lot of surprising Olympics-related emotions at @katchatters.