Steffi Graf’s magnificent legs carried her to a different realm this week. Before, they had taken her along the route traveled by Navratilova, Evert, King and Gibson - women whose bodies gained renown for what they did.
Now, those legs are stretched over pages traditionally occupied by Brinkley, Tiegs and some first-name types like Vendela and Paulina - women whose bodies became famous just for being there.
The Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue corralled Graf, whose form follows function as gracefully as Michael Jordan’s. Jordan, of course, won’t be asked to don a bikini for a national publication any time soon. The Bulls are in midseason when the swimsuit issue is assembled, and, well, you know how athletes hate distractions.
Amy Tucker saw the Graf pictures and loved them. She is the top assistant basketball coach at Stanford, and she is not a fan of the swimsuit issue. But the Graf pictures “celebrate her athleticism,” Tucker said. “You look at them and say ‘That is a strong woman.’ I like seeing her as role model for what’s beautiful.”
The headline on the piece said: “The world’s premier women’s tennis player shows that she can be as dazzling off the tennis court as she is on it.” The obvious question then is: Why not just show her on the court? Or, as head coach Tara VanDerveer said: “Would they pose male athletes that way?”
Actually, in a recent feature, the magazine published a decidedly beefcake photograph of the brightest young shortstops in the majors. They were all bare-chested. But the accompanying story focused on their athletic ability, and none of the surrounding articles suggested that beefcake, in and of itself, constituted a sport.
“Of course it’s sexist,” Tucker said, but she sees progress, sort of like the period when primates evolved and began walking upright. Any century now, anthropological advances will bring us advertising aimed higher than the typical man’s belt.
Until then, true enlightenment will remain in the eye of the beholder. No one can fault Graf for her decision. She obviously worked for her physique and has every right to be proud of it. There are plenty of female athletes who would happily do the same thing.
“I’d definitely do it,” said Trisha Stafford, a player for the San Jose Lasers. “Maybe it’s just because of my ego, but I think it’s something I could do well.”
She has already done some modeling, as has a teammate, former Washington State University star Jenni Ruff, who said she, too, would sign on for a swimsuit gig if it were offered.
Ruff agrees with Tucker - that glorifying athletic bodies represents a positive step. “Most models are very skinny,” Ruff said. “I think it’s a good thing if young girls could see ‘This is how a body should look if you’re healthy.’ “
In one sense, modeling fits the impulses of any athlete, male or female. Athletes have always sought admiration for their fitness, and outright vanity infiltrated locker rooms years ago. The arrival of doubleknits ushered in the era of baseball players who forbade breathing room in their uniforms. Track and field is filled with peacocks. For every Florence Griffith Joyner, there is a Carl Lewis carefully overseeing the design of his latest singlet.
A woman, just by stepping onto a court of field of play, is presumed to be on foreign turf. Too often, she has to find a way to issue a disclaimer.
“There’s a lot of pressure on female athletes to defend who they are,” VanDerveer said. “I think there are women who, because of the pressure society puts on them, think it’s not OK to just be an athlete. You have to be a sexy athlete.”
Graf said she agreed to pose because she admires good photography and the swimsuit issue is something of a work of art. Her fans will be happy to see an uninhibited side emerging from a woman who has squirmed in public, tortured by the demands of celebrity. But when she posed, was she eager to prove something or was she just reveling in her physical superiority, as a Rodman or Jordan would?
VanDerveer, the Olympic coach last year, said she never discussed the pressures to do the dresses-and-high-heels routine when she was with the national team. But at Stanford, she said, the players have made it clear that they see athleticism as part of being a woman, not as a separate quality.
The fans who faithfully attend Stanford games would agree. There are men and women, boys and girls there, asking for Kate Starbird’s autograph, cheering for Vanessa Nygaard’s 3-pointers. They don’t need to see Lisa Leslie in heels or Steffi Graf in a bikini to know that they are dazzling.
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