TIME russia

Exclusive: Sochi’s Gays Had Protection From the Mayor Who Claimed They Don’t Exist

Performers Penelopa, right, and Veranda, left, get ready backstage before a performance at the Mayak cabaret, the most reputable gay club in Sochi, Feb. 8, 2014.
Performers Penelopa, right, and Veranda, left, get ready backstage before a performance at the Mayak cabaret, the most reputable gay club in Sochi, Feb. 8, 2014. David Goldman—AP

The owner of Sochi's only gay nightclub tells TIME he received preferential treatment from the city's mayor in the run-up to the Olympic Games. But will the LGBT community enjoy the same protections when the world is no longer watching?

In early January, about a month before the Winter Olympics in Sochi began, Andrei Tanichev, the owner of the city’s only gay night club, got a call from the local government summoning him to a meeting with the mayor. It did not sound promising. Just a few days earlier, a special security regime known as the “ring of steel” had put Sochi authorities on high alert for any Olympic disruptions. And although Tanichev is a businessman, not an activist, Russia’s new law against homosexual “propaganda” among minors had thrust his cabaret into a legal grey zone. He went into the meeting prepared for the worst.

What he got was a supporting role in Russia’s gay Potemkin village. While gay rights activists in other parts of Russia have continued to face court appearances and fines even during the Olympic Games, the gay community in Sochi has been put under the state’s protection, at least while the eyes of the world are watching. In his office that day in January, Mayor Anatoly Pakhomov, the Kremlin’s plain-spoken Olympic enforcer, welcomed his guest with a smile. “It was weird,” recalls Tanichev. “He was super nice, really pleasant.”

After asking about the sanitary conditions at the club, which is called Mayak, or Lighthouse, the mayor inquired if there were any problems he could help resolve, and Tanichev said that the luxury hotel being built next door had dumped all kinds of trash in the neighborhood. It was a lot like the complaint Pakhomov had faced in April during a town hall meeting of his constituents, who were up in arms over the felling of trees to make way for Olympic sites. “Anybody who doesn’t like it,” Pakhomov yelled at that packed auditorium, “had better calm themselves down or move away. End of story!”

But with the owner of Mayak he was much more obliging. The week of their meeting, Tanishev says the mayor sent an official to get the trash problem cleared up. “They didn’t publicize it at all,” he says. “I guess they were trying to keep it quiet.” That seems to have been the mayor’s approach to the issue of gays in his city. During an interview with the BBC in December, he said he was not aware of any homosexuals living in Sochi at all, although he later insisted that he was only talking about an absence of gay activists. Since early January, Pakhomov has declined numerous written requests for an interview with TIME, citing his busy Olympic schedule. But his spokesman, Mikael Nersesyan, confirmed that the mayor’s meeting with Tanichev “probably” took place. “If Tanichev says they met, then yes, they probably met,” he says. “The mayor meets with dozens of people a day. There’s nothing abnormal about it.”

As the Olympics grew closer, the government’s pampering did start to seem like the norm for Mayak. During a routine inspection late last year by the Federal Drug Control Service, Russia’s version of the DEA, Tanish says the agents didn’t even go past the doorway before giving Mayak a pass. Had they been a bit less squeamish, they could have stuck around for the nightly drag show, which features a Lady Gaga lookalike and plenty of audience participation. The decor inside is posh but tasteful (Tanichev, whose partner of many years helps run the club, has a degree in design), and the clientele is not shy about public displays of affection even when the foreign news cameras are rolling all around them.

Reporters from all over the world have become a fixture at Mayak in recent months, all eager to cover the impact of Russia’s anti-gay legislation. But in all the dozens if not hundreds of interviews he’s given lately, Tanichev says he neglected to mention his meeting with the mayor. “Nobody asked,” he says. His message, which reporters have asked him to repeat on a nightly basis for months, is that gay rights are doing just fine in Sochi, which had a thriving gay community even in Soviet times, when sodomy was technically against the law. That also seems to be the message local authorities want to transmit to the world: everything is rosy, please move along. “They are scared to cause some kind of scandal,” says Tanichev. “You have to remember these guys are from the provinces. They’ve never dealt with gay issues before. And all of a sudden they have these reporters talking about LGBT this and transgender that.”

The public signals coming from Moscow have only seemed to confuse them further. In his most recent remarks on the subject last month, President Vladimir Putin said that homosexuals “should feel relaxed and calm” in Sochi during the Olympics. But in the same breath, he seemed to suggest that foreign gays were out to prey on Russian kids. “Just leave the children alone, please,” Putin told them.

With all that, officials in Sochi have begun to feel “unsure what side they’re playing on,” says Tanichev. “The law says one thing. Putin says another. Of course their instinct is to make as little noise as possible around this issue.” So it is no surprise that the headlines in the western press have recently painted the city of Sochi, and in particular the Mayak night club, as a living rebuke to Putin’s anti-gay legislation. But the gentle touch of the local authorities have not extended very far outside of Sochi’s city limits.

On Jan. 31, a week before the Winter Olympics began, authorities in the Ural Mountains city of Nizhny Tagil, part of Russia’s industrial heartland, used the gay propaganda law to shut down the only organization in the country that councils gay teenagers through the process of coming out. Elena Klimova, who founded the Children-404 center last year and coordinates its 14 volunteer psychologists, was charged for posting information on her social networking page that “promotes non-traditional sexual relations among minors,” according to her subpoena, which she sent to TIME via e-mail. The document goes on to charge that Klimova’s work was aimed at spreading “skewed ideas about the social equality between traditional and non-traditional sexual relations.”

The charges, she says, refer to the letters from Russian teenagers that she has posted on her Facebook page as a solace to others. They make for heartbreaking reading. In one of them, posted earlier this month, a 19-year-old woman describes how her parents tied her up and invited a stranger to rape her after they learned of her lesbian relationship. The assault, which her parents believed would “cure” her of homosexuality, resulted in pregnancy, the woman wrote, but police have ignored her attempts to file charges. This month, when Klimova stands before a Russian court, she faces a fine worth several thousand dollars for posting such stories online. In an email to TIME, she wrote that the law being used to prosecute her “has directly given free rein to many homophobes. It officially declares that gays and lesbians are inferior beings… That truly amounts to fascism.” And as far as she’s concerned, there is not much comfort in the fact that gay clubs are allowed to operate freely in some Russian cities. “Any gay club amounts to a ghetto,” Klimova says. “And it doesn’t at all mean that gays in Russia have it good.”

Over drinks at his night club, Tanichev says he agrees. The easy ride Mayak has gotten amid Russia’s Olympic posturing does not change the fact that the government seems to be nudging society in a very hateful direction. “I often think about where we’re heading as a nation,” Tanichev says while the drag queens in the make-up room are preparing for the night’s cabaret. “Sometimes it seems like we’re rolling backwards toward some kind of theocracy,” he says. The walls of the room around him sure don’t make it seem that way. They are covered with giant photos of almost-naked men. But the view from Mayak, and from Sochi, is deceptive.

TIME olympics

U.S. Snowboarder Arielle Gold Drops Out Of Olympics

Snowboard - Winter Olympics Day 5
Arielle Gold after crashing at Rosa Khutor Extreme Park on February 12, 2014. Mike Ehrmann—Getty Images

Snowboarder Arielle Gold hurt her shoulder during a practice run Wednesday and was forced to sit out of her Olympic competition. The 17-year-old's injury comes on the heels of Shaun White's disappointing fourth-place finish Tuesday

Team USA snowboarder Arielle Gold suffered a shoulder injury Wednesday and will not compete in the Olympics.

Gold, 17, was training before her heat when she crashed in the Rosa Khuto halfpipe, USA Today reports. She was considered a medal contender in the event after becoming the second-youngest snowboarder to win the FIS World Snowboarding Championship last year.

American snowboarder Shaun White dropped out of last Saturday’s slopestyle snowboarding competition and came in a disappointing fourth in the men’s halfpipe Tuesday.

[USA Today]

TIME olympics

Move Over Shaun White: The I-Pod Is Here

Shaun White of the U.S. reacts after crashing during the men's snowboard halfpipe final event at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games in Rosa Khutor
Shaun White of the U.S. reacts after crashing during the men's snowboard halfpipe final event at the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympic Games, in Rosa Khutor February 11, 2014. Mike Blake—Reuters

American snowboarder Shaun White was considered a near-lock for a gold in the halfpipe until he fell on his first 2 attempts then didn't land smoothly on his third, sending him home with no medals at all after he backed out of another competition

Just as quickly as the Olympics can lift you into the hearts and minds of the masses, they can send your reputation careening down a halfpipe.

Shaun White won’t be longing to return to Sochi anytime soon. First, he decided to pull out of the slopestyle competition, citing the dangers of the course and his desire to concentrate on his money event — the halfpipe. Fellow boarders started chirping: another worthy American could have taken his slopestyle spot, you know? We found out that White, despite the attention — and thus money — he brings to the sport, isn’t all that popular among his peers. Not unlike Tiger Woods, when Woods was winning.

Then, he started griping about the half-pipe conditions. Granted, he was far from alone. But it was Jack Nicklaus who once remarked that as soon as he heard kvetching about a course, he knew he had an edge. White is the Jack, the Tiger of his sport. Now, he was doing the complaining.

White was shooting to become the first American man to win a gold medal in the same event in three consecutive Olympics. On his first run in Tuesday’s halfpipe finals, White fell twice. White went big on his second attempt (in snowboarding, only the top score counts), but it wasn’t smooth enough. He finished in fourth. Iouri “IPod” Podladtchikov, a Russian-born boarder now competing for Switzerland, took gold – how peeved is Putin? — thanks to his signature trick, the “Yolo.” That’s a double flip with four rotations in the air. You only live once dude.

No Yolo, no gold. White’s loss won’t diminish his contributions to Olympic snowboarding. But those Flying Tomato days seem pretty distant. And it seems pretty bizarre to write this: Shaun White, such a sure thing for so long, has actually kinda killed the good U.S. snowboarding vibe. After dual American wins in the new slopestyle event, we’d have White, and then maybe Kelly Clark taking home halfpipe gold in the women’s competition on Wednesday.

Now, there’s a hole in the U.S. medal count. Few expected White not to fill it.

TIME

Must-see images from Sochi Olympics: Day 6

Shaun White crashing out of the medals and more from day 6 of the Sochi Olympics.

TIME medicine

What’s Happening With Bob Costas’ Eye and How You Can Avoid It

Bob Costas with Matt Lauer Today" show.
Bob Costas with Matt Lauer Today" show. Peter Kramer—NBC

After a battling and ultimately losing to what appears to be a rapidly-spreading eye infection, the NBC broadcaster is ceding his nightly Olympics hosting duties to fellow anchor Matt Lauer for the first time since 1988

Bob Costas put forth an Olympian effort, but his red, swollen eyes have gotten the best of him. For the first time since 1988, the veteran sports anchor will cede his his nightly Olympics hosting duties to Matt Lauer while his mysterious infection clears.

It’s not clear how Costas’ eyes got so inflamed – but pink eye, or conjunctivitis, is the most common infection among U.S. children and adults. It’s caused by both bacteria like staph and strep, and viruses like the cold virus (which means it is highly contagious). It can also be caused by allergies or chemicals. Pink eye causes red, inflamed, and swollen conjunctiva, or the membranes that cover the white parts of the eyes. Infections are common wherever people are in close contact: day care centers, classrooms, college dorms and work places. Worried about your risk? Here’s what you need to know.

How do I avoid getting eye infections?

There’s no way to foolproof yourself, especially if you have an allergic reaction to something you touch or something that you are exposed to in the air.

But the best way to protect against the bacteria and viruses that trigger infections is to wash your hands and not share things like washcloths, pillows, sheets or eyewear.

If someone near you is already infected, make sure you avoid touching anything that has been near their eyes. It’s also a good idea to disinfect common areas such as bathroom and kitchen surfaces.

How do I know if my eyes are infected?

Infections can cause a runny discharge that can dry to form a crusty layer, making it hard to open your eyes in the morning. You may also feel some pain and itchiness in your eyes. Use a disposable paper towel and warm water to clear away any residue, or, if you use a towel, wash it thoroughly afterward.

Costas appeared on air Thursday with one swollen pink eye, but as of Monday evening, this is how he looked:

How long do infections last?

Viral infections can cause redness and itching for up to a week, while other reactions, particularly those caused by allergic responses to chemicals or smoke, can last as long as three weeks or more.

What’s the best treatment?

For viral infections, there is no real treatment other than artificial tear drops, which can help to relieve itchiness and pain. Doctors may prescribe antibiotics for bacterial infections, which can clear up pink eye in several days. See your doctor to determine which treatment is appropriate for your case.

TIME olympics

Turning Individual Athletes Into Team Players

Figure Skating - Winter Olympics Day -1
Jeremy Abbott of the United States reacts after seeing his scores as teammates Meryl Davis (back L) and Charlie White (back R) look on in the Figure Skating Men's Short Program during the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics at Iceberg Skating Palace on February 6, 2014 in Sochi, Russia. Darren Cummings / Pool / Getty Images

How do competitors who train their entire careers to look out for number one adjust to relying on others to get the gold?

The debut of the team figure skating event Thursday at the Olympics didn’t go so well for the Americans. After less than stellar performances by both the men’s entrants and pairs members, the U.S., a gold medal favorite going into the Games, is in danger of not making the second round of competition.

That’s the danger of a team event – or, in this case, a hybrid team event – in which athletes compete as individuals but their standing depends on the performance of others. In team figure skating, each discipline – ladies, men, pairs, and ice dance – accumulates points for a each team’s total. Only those with the top five point totals go on to skate off for a medal in the finals.

MORE: Team Figure Skating at the Winter Olympics: What You Need to Know

Tying their fate to the performance of others isn’t something that figure skaters are accustomed to doing. Same for the single luge athletes, who are used to racing the clock alone on their slides. “Every elite athlete, has to have a certain degree of selfishness,” says Mark Aoyagi, director of sport and performance psychology at the University of Denver. “They have to look out for themselves by definition to become elite, at a level that normal people don’t understand.” Shifting that self-centered focus and accepting that their fate may now be in the hands of others may, he says, “be a hard pill to swallow.”

There’s no data suggesting that people who are more me-focused tend to gravitate toward solo sports and shun team endeavors, but those who pick up tennis or ski jumping or figure skating do tend to be more independent and self-reliant. Participating in a team event requires a shift in that mentality to accept that others may have different ways of training, different ways of preparing, and vastly different ways of handling stress and competing.

MORE: Gracie Gold Is New National Skating Ladies’ Champion, But Controversy Brewing Over Olympic Selection

“It’s a different kind of pressure,” says Cory Newman, director of the center for cognitive therapy and professor psychology at the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine. “Now it’s not just your own face you risk falling on if you have a hard time, but there are other people invested in you, and depending on you.”

How potentially paralyzing, or helpful, that pressure can be depends on the rest of your teammates. With the right atmosphere, he says, the experience can be inspiring and uplifting, and there is evidence that such collaborative efforts can even lead to better performances. In a 2002 study by researchers from University of Western Ontario and Brock University, scientists found, for example, that strongly cohesive groups of athletes who performed individually but had their scores pooled into a team effort performed better than those who were collaborative in traditional team sports such as basketball and football. Aoygai says it’s possible that because these teams didn’t normally function as a team, they took more time to address ways to bring the individual athletes together to foster a sense of camaraderie and fellowship.

One way to ease the transition is to help athletes see the change as a positive, which many do. For one, in a team event there is less pressure on each individual since each performance becomes part of a group score. There’s also the support of your teammates to celebrate victories and commiserate in defeats. “There must be an inherent loneliness in the life of a figure skater,” says Newman, “since everybody is your competitor. It must be nice to have an opportunity in which not everybody is your competitor, but there to help you.”

But what happens if things don’t work out well, and some athletes bring the entire group down? That’s what the U.S. team faces now. For sports psychologists, that’s an opportunity to ensure that the instinctively independent athletes don’t revert to their me-first mentality, and, as Aoyagi says, “look for the first fire exit to get out and protect themselves and their ego,” but instead remain committed to the team. Agreeing to be part of a team, as any player knows, requires sacrifice, and for self-minded athletes, that may include accepting that there is a risk that the outcomes may not always reflect their own abilities. “You have to be willing to compromise that things might not work out the way you like it,” says Gregory Dale, director of the sports psychology and leadership program at Duke University. “And you need to understand that your teammates are not going to do anything to screw things up on purpose. They’re in it like you are.”

Coming to that understanding can be easier if the team builds cohesiveness before the competition; some go-to techniques respected coaches have used include bringing athletes outside of their training setting to share a meal or participate in an activity that will allow them to collaborate and learn more about each other so they can establish trust and respect. Mike Candrea, who heads up the softball teams at the University of Arizona and brought together players from around the country for the U.S. Olympic women’s softball team, used holiday parties to bring his players together. Others have turned to rock climbing or other activities that force athletes to communicate and rely on each other. “Trust is the foundation of any dynamic in a team,” says Dale.

And that trust, says sports psychologists, will be the key to determining which teams of normally self-minded athletes pull ahead of others. “If you look at it the right way,” says Aoyagi, “research shows that even if a team is made up of individual athlete performances, they can truly be a team and that does lead to a better outcome.”

TIME olympics

Bob Costas Is Not In Good Shape

His eye infection is getting visibly worse

Updated: Feb. 11, 9:00 a.m.

Bob Costas, who’s anchoring much of NBC’s primetime Sochi Winter Olympics coverage, is battling an eye infection — and he appears to be losing.

Costas acknowledged having “some kind of minor infection which should resolve itself by the weekend” on Thursday. It has not resolved itself. It has, instead, spread to both of his eyes:

Props to Costas for hanging in there despite what looks like double pink eye (Or is that just “pink eyes?”). Just two more weeks to go, Bob!

Update: But on Tuesday morning, NBC announced that Costas would be taking the night off from his Olympic duties, to be replaced by Matt Lauer. Costas managed a humorous toss to Lauer despite his cringe-worthy eye infection, saying: “Reluctantly, I was trying to throw a complete game here, but I think we’re going to have to go to the bullpen, and I don’t know if you’re aware of this or not, but you’re Mariano Rivera, at least tonight.”

Costas’ appearance has, of course, invited all sorts of jokes on Twitter:

This post has been updated to indicate Costas taking Tuesday off from reporting.

TIME olympics

Beer Fridge Cheers Canadian Olympians at Sochi

Molson beer refrigerator offers free brews when Canadians scan their passports

Canadians competing at Sochi have a leg up on their rivals, at least when it comes to beverages: A beer fridge has reportedly been installed in country’s Olympic House. Canadians love their beer so much that beer company Molson Canadian made a vending machine that made sure nationals could get a free brew at any moment, just as long as they have their passports. Also spotted last year in London and Brussels, the beer fridge works by taking a photo of people’s passports to verify their authenticity, then doling out a cold brew.

Canadian have plenty to toast at the games, too. As of Monday night, they were in a three-way medal tie with Norway and the Netherlands, with seven medals each.

TIME olympics

Meet the Russian Figure Skater One Bad Fall From Paralysis

OLY-2014-FSKATE-FREE-MEN-TEAM
Russia's Yevgeni Plushenko reacts after performing the Men's Figure Skating Team Free Program at the Iceberg Skating Palace during the Sochi Winter Olympics on February 9, 2014. Yuri Kadobnov / AFP / Getty Images

It's crunch time for Evgeni Plushenko, a Russian Olympic figure skater and beloved athlete, who had the 13th major spinal surgery of his career last year and nearly had to sit out this year's Games. But he dared to skate, and grabbed a gold

The Olympic figure skater Evgeni Plushenko, one of Russia’s most beloved athletes, was nearing the end of his performance at the Winter Games in Sochi on Sunday night when he felt a sharp pinch in his spine. Few in the packed stands of the Iceberg Arena, whose audience that night included Russian President Vladimir Putin, noticed the subtle change in the skater’s posture at that moment. But his trainer, Alexei Mishin, froze as Plushenko came out of his two final jumps. “They were flawed,” he told TIME afterward. “You could tell he was hurting.”

Hardly a year has passed since Plushenko, the home-crowd favorite of the Games in Sochi, had major surgery on his spine—the 13th operation of his career—which left him with debilitating pain through much of his Olympic training. Although he won a gold medal at the 2006 Winter Olympics in Torino, he is, at 31, now in the twilight of his career, and his wife has warned that another bad fall could paralyze him.

But none of that has kept him from competing. On Sunday, after his performance in the team figure skating event, Russia finally won its first gold medal. It was the highlight of an Olympic showing that has so far given the host country little to celebrate. Team Russia now stands at sixth place in the overall medals tally, one spot behind Germany, and of all the athletes it needs to help the country pull ahead, none have quite as much pressure on them as Plushenko.

For two years running, national surveys have found him to be Russia’s favorite athlete, well ahead of his peers in more mainstream sports like tennis and boxing. Off the ice, his reputation as a prima donna has also given endless fodder for the tabloids, which never seem to tire of featuring his blond mullet and shimmery suits on their covers. In 2010, when his performance fell just shy of the gold medal at the last Winter Games in Vancouver, Plushenko threw such a tantrum that Putin felt obliged to assuage the skater’s ego in a personal telegram which declared: “Your silver is worth gold.” Plushenko’s big chance to make up for his loss in Vancouver was always meant to come in Sochi.

So in December, when he lost a key qualifying round for the Sochi Olympics to a 19-year-old newcomer, a national scandal broke out. “Everybody was like, ‘What? How could that be? How could we have the Olympics in Russia without Zhenya,” says Yana Rudkovskaya, his wife and manager, using a pet name for her husband. To make matters worse, Plushenko refused to compete in the final qualifying round for the Sochi Games—the European figure skating championships—explaining with his typical aplomb that he was too busy training for the Olympics to compete in any more Olympic qualifiers.

That presented Russia’s Olympic officials with a serious dilemma. They could either bend the rules and give Plushenko another chance to join Team Russia, or they could risk angering his legion of fans by keeping him out of the Games. After much debate behind the scenes and in the press, Plushenko was allowed to perform a special “control run” for a committee of Russian officials and figure skating experts. The performance was held behind closed doors only two-and-a-half weeks before the Olympics commenced, and it has never been shown to the public. But whatever Plushenko did on the ice that day, it secured him a ticket to Sochi.

So far, he has used it to fine effect. His four-minute solo performance on Sunday helped push the national figure skating team to the top of the podium, even though, according to his trainer, Plushenko was holding out. “He didn’t go out there to show his full power,” Mishin said Monday. “He did just enough to get the right team result.”

Minutes after that result earned a gold medal for him and his nine teammates, Plushenko announced that he would be performing for another one in the men’s singles event on Thursday. And what about that whole back problem? The pins surgically implanted in his spine? The risk of paralysis? “There are no healthy athletes in the major leagues,” Mishin said. “Everybody hurts.”

Though her tone is a bit less cavalier, Plushenko’s wife and manager agrees that it would have been wrong to pull out of the Olympics because of her husband’s health. While driving on Monday to the medals ceremony to see him on the podium, she told TIME by phone that, because of the pain, “He could have decided to ask for a replacement. And he didn’t do that. He decided to compete to the end like a real man, a real athlete. Who could fault him for that?”

Well, maybe his doctors. But certainly not his fans.

TIME Sports Biz

Medals Aren’t Enough: Female Olympians Still Have to Sell Sexiness

Sochi stars sound off on the fine line between marketing their beauty to get much-needed sponsorship money and being taken seriously as athletes

Gracie Gold, Ashley Wagner, Julie Chu, Lolo Jones. These women will become household names this month at the Sochi Olympics before fading again out of the nation’s imagination. During the two weeks of the games, female athletes will get more screen time than they usually do—the rest of the year, all but four percent of airtime is dedicated to male athletics. In that short period of time, each Olympian needs to capitalize on media exposure and endorsements to fund the next four years of training. For women this has traditionally meant playing up sex appeal.

“I don’t think there’s any question that there’s a double standard,” says Kevin Adler, Chief Engagement Officer at Chicago-based sports marketing agency Engage Marketing. “For male athletes, it’s primarily about their performance. And for female athletes it’s definitely as much about their looks as it is about their performance.”

The double standard ranges across women’s sports: the WNBA offers makeup seminars to rookies in hopes of attracting a larger male audience; athletes even in the less sexy sports like skiing or golf are posing in bikinis or less in magazines; and women who compete in sports that require helmets are spending 30 minutes in front of the mirror putting on makeup before competition preparing for their HD close-up when that helmet comes off at the finish line.

These efforts can earn sponsorships—though not nearly as many as the men get. Even though most female athletes make the bulk of their money from endorsements, Sports Illustrated’s 2013 list of the 50 highest earning athletes didn’t include a single woman.

And then there’s the inevitable backlash: a woman athlete’s beauty can also be used against her, as famed 22-year-old figure skater Ashley Wagner found out last month when she was accused by several members of the media of earning her spot on the Olympic Figure Skating team based on her looks rather than her talent. Though figure skating has always been a sport focused on aesthetics, such focus on beauty undercuts women athletes’ achievements across other sports too.

“I feel like the media and society in general—because it’s easy—put female athletes into two boxes,” Ashley Wagner says. “You’re either a very pretty athlete or you go to the opposite end of the spectrum and you’re very sexy.”

Not attractive is not an option.

Despite all the progress women’s athletics have made since Title IX in 1972, the law that required girls and women’s sports to get equal public funding, female athletes are still asked to walk the narrow line between empowered and sexy in order to earn endorsements.

Getting Naked

Gretchen Bleiler
Gretchen Bleiler on the cover of ‘s 2011 Body Issue ESPN the Magazine

When initially approached about posing naked for ESPN the Magazine’s Body Issue, which features naked athletes, U.S. Women’s Hockey forward Julie Chu was skeptical. “I think there are some that look at that issue, and their initial reaction is anything done posing nude has to be trying to sell sex or a certain image,” she says. But once she understood that the issue (which includes both men and women) was about strength not sex, she agreed.

“I don’t know if it was the first issue if I would have done it, but…I think that issue really highlights that there’s a lot of different types of bodies for elite athletes, and all of them can be beautiful and strong and confident,” she says. The bodies ESPN the Magazine features stray from the skinny, large breasted women you typically see on the covers of magazines in grocery stores. “For hockey players, we have big legs. We’ve got to be able to motor on the ice and have balance. But we can still have more muscular body types and be beautiful in our own right.”

She was reassured when her mom saw the picture. “When the image came out, I asked my mom, ‘So, mom, what do you think about it?’ And she said, ‘The first word that came to my mind was powerful.’”

Many other winter Olympic athletes have posed for the Body Issue, including snowboarder Gretchen Bleiler (on one of the 2011 covers above). Twenty years ago, most moms would have balked at even the suggestion of such a picture. It’s a testament to the growth of American popular culture that we can accept a naked female as an empowering picture that can bolster young girls’ body image.

But Chu’s initial skepticism wasn’t totally misplaced. Female athletes who strip down still undergo media scrutiny.

When I spoke to Kevin Adler, he happened to be flipping through a spread on America’s favorite skier Lindsey Vonn in the newest issue of Red Bull Magazine. “All the pictures are of her in super skimpy outfits with almost, you could argue, a little bit of an S&M theme with high heels. And then I flip through the rest of the magazine, and all the male athletes are depicted in a completely different way,” he says. (Vonn won’t be competing in this year’s Olympics due to a knee injury.)

Though some feminists may look down on Vonn for agreeing to pose for such a photo because it draws attention away from her athletic achievements, Adler argues that consumers shouldn’t blame the player but the game. “It’s a basic pragmatic issue that that’s the way the game is played, and you’re an athlete that has the ability to cash in on that game, then I suppose you might as well.”

He points to someone like Anna Kournikova, who was as (or more) famous for her body as she was for her tennis skills. Kournikova racked up $15 million despite never winning a major title. She did, however, practically break the Internet when an email that lured people to open a link by promising sexy photos of her crashed computers across the world in 2001. USA Today sports reporter Christine Brennan wrote a satirical column about the best-looking male tennis player who has never won a major during Kournikova’s heyday (spoiler alert: you’ve never heard of him).

Summer Olympian and hurdler Lolo Jones—who is competing now in the Winter Olympics as a bobsledder—has also been accused of leveraging her looks for fame. A carefully cultivated social media following earned her deals with McDonald’s, Aesics and Red Bull. But a scathing New York Times article accused her of getting media attention “not based on her achievement but her exotic beauty and a sad and cynical marketing campaign.” Some even said Jones should give the sponsorship money back when she didn’t medal at the London Olympics.

Jones fired back in the ESPN Nine for IX documentary, Branded, “I have a chance to get sponsors every four years, and that money has to last. If you know anything about the Olympics, in between—those four years in between—it’s like the desert [financially speaking].”

Jones’ point rings true for most female athletes, all of whom spend precious little time on television. A study conducted by the University of Southern California’s Center for Feminist Research found that men’s sports receive 96 percent of airtime on local affiliates for NBC, CBS and ABC. And Olympic athletes only make national news about once every four years. So it’s not just a once-in-four-years chance at a medal, it’s a once-in-four-years chance to land ads that can fuel years of training.

And even athletes who get more screen time year round like NASCAR driver Danica Patrick know that their appeal as females is often limited. To those who say she discredits her work by signing on to do salacious GoDaddy commercials that usually feature her in a towel, she says: “I’m going to use what I can to get money, to get a ride because I feel like it’s opening a door. All it does is open a door to get inside and show what I can do,” she said in a clip from Branded.

Pretty Still Matters

But while Danica Patrick has earned millions from her GoDaddy commercials—and therefore earned much of the scrutiny that was bound to accompany those ads—Ashley Wagner found herself at the center of a media frenzy about her looks without solicitation.

A reporter at the Wall Street Journal accused U.S. Figure Skating of giving Wagner (one of the most heavily-endorsed athletes of the games and the face of CoverGirl cosmetics) a spot on the team because of her appearance, not her skill. And he did it using language that reveals a lot about how female athletes are portrayed in the media even when they’re not in an ad.

“Wagner’s flowing blond hair, bellflower-blue eyes and sculpted features mark her as a sporting archetype: She’s the embodiment of the ‘golden girl’ the media has extolled…a marketer’s dream who’s already signed up tent-pole sponsors like Nike, Pandora Jewelry and CoverGirl, which assessed her Teutonic beauty as being worthy of serving as one of their global faces…[W]ith Wagner, silver winner Polina Edmunds and gold medalist Gracie Gold (talk about central casting fantasies!) the U.S.A. will be taking to the ice with a porcelain-skinned, blond-tressed triple-threat…”

U.S. Figure Skating denied that race or beauty played any role in their decision (rather, they judged her based on her body of work), and Wagner herself could not understand why she became the target of vitriol on Twitter. “I’m not the one who put myself on the team,” she says. “It’s not like I walked in and voted for myself.”

But, more importantly, the debate over whether Wagner earned her spot based on her looks would not even have happened had she been a man. “The fact that this conversation is even taking place in the public discourse is such a discredit to Ashley as an athlete. Because if this were a conversation about male athletes, the fact that one of them was better looking than the other wouldn’t even come into play,” Adler says. He couldn’t remember a single time when there had been speculation that a man had lost out on an athletic opportunity because of his looks.

Skating has always been about aesthetics to some degree and Wagner is the face of a popular makeup brand. But the discussion about Wagner’s hair and eye color distracts from conversations about her actual routine, which Wagner hoped would stand out because of its empowering message. “This year, I’m skating to ‘Shine On You, Crazy Diamonds’ by Pink Floyd. Super, super strong music,” she says. “It’s not something overly sexual, and it’s definitely not just pretty. It’s about me on the ice, confident in what I’m doing—fierce and powerful. That’s the role model I’m trying to be.”

Even in sports that aren’t traditionally judged based on looks, athletes are feeling pressure to doll themselves up. Skier Mikaela Shiffrin told the Today Show (in a segment called “How Skier Mikaela Shiffrin Conquered Pull-Ups, Splotchy Skin, and More”):

“With the Olympics coming up there are cameras everywhere, and I’m more aware of my beauty habits. On the hill, under the helmet, nobody sees your face or hair, but then you take it off and they do—that’s part of what I’m nervous about. Now I literally spend 30 minutes in the bathroom every morning…I never thought makeup had a place in athletics, but now I do.”

P&G, which owns CoverGirl and sponsors dozens of athletes, even has set up a “Beauty Challenge” sweepstakes in which women can be “inspired by” athletes’ beauty tips and submit their own glamorous photo. The athletes featured in the campaign, including Vonn and Wagner, are labeled “goldgetters.” (Things are even worse for the Russian female Olympics athletes.)

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Strong, athletic women ought to be allowed to be feminine too—especially when fans at home are seeing close-ups of their faces on HD TVs. But a 30-minute makeup routine will not be the part of most male athletes’ rituals—and certainly not a part of their interview. And those kinds of articles are popping up more and more (and not just in women’s magazines). So can women who don’t worry about hair or makeup—whether it be on or off the court—compete for endorsements?

This question is especially pressing for young athletes who are happy just to have endorsement offers at all. “When I was first approached by different sponsors, the concept of being sponsored, it was amazing that someone wanted me to represent their brand or their product just because I was doing something I love—skating,” says Gracie Gold who at a tender 18 is the number one ranked figure skater in the U.S. and the country’s best hope for a medal in skating. “It was kind of just living in a dream—I have an agent, I have commercials—that’s crazy!”

Marketing Female Empowerment

There is another option for advertisers: marketing empowerment. Advertisers have long known that Title IX sells. In 1999, the U.S. women’s soccer team won the World Cup for the first time after an intense shootout against China. It is still the most-watched women’s sporting event in history, and the most-watched soccer match (played by men or women) ever in the U.S. “There were 20 women in baggy shorts and soccer jerseys and long socks and soccer cleats who just captivated the nation in a way we’d never seen before from women dressed that way,” Brennan says. The story was the first in history to make the cover of Time, Sports Illustrated and People magazines.

That team inspired a generation of female athletes. Chu lists famed soccer player Mia Hamm (who led the U.S. women’s soccer team that year) among her role models and recalls a 1997 Gatorade commercial in which Hamm and Michael Jordan compete at various sports to the tune of “Anything You Can Do, I Can Do Better.” The ad ends with Hamm throwing Jordan over her shoulder—an image that probably wouldn’t have made the cut in an ad just a few years before.

“The 1999 World Cup—I remember that so clearly, and then Mia Hamm’s Gatorade ad… That was such a special moment because at the time, women athletes weren’t really in predominant ads like that. That really set the bar.”

Empowering ads like Hamm’s set the groundwork for Olympic commercials celebrating women’s achievements you will see this week on TV, like the Visa ad that dubs Amelia Earhart’s voice over a commercial starring ski jumper Sarah Hendrickson. This is the first year women will be able to compete in the ski jump at the Olympics after a long battle for a women’s version of the event. Nineteen-year-old Hendrickson made Team U.S.A. despite suffering a serious injury in August when she crashed in training, tearing her ACL, her MCL and her meniscus. She had surgery and rehabbed her legs at an unprecedented pace to make Team U.S.A. Even those who don’t know that story know from her commercial that she is the face of women’s progress: “I am woman. Watch me fly,” it reads.

“People are like, ‘Well, you’re so young, you’ll have other Olympics,'” Hendrickson told the New York Times Magazine in November. “And it’s like: ‘No, you just don’t understand. For women’s ski jumping this is the year to compete.’…I see myself at the top of the ski jump in Sochi,” she says. “I see myself walking into the opening ceremony.”

Commercials like these suggest that things have gotten better for women athletes in the marketing world. “I’ve been covering this kind of thing for about 20 years, and I think things are better for women,” Brennan says. Even Danica Patrick (the fifth-highest earning female athlete this year) donned a muscle suit rather than a bikini for this year’s Super Bowl GoDaddy ad after female business owners complained about the sexist marketing campaign. And some athletes who refuse to play the into feminine stereotypes, like basketball all-star Brittney Griner, are being featured in high-profile ads. Griner models men’s clothing for Nike, but as the most talented player in the WNBA, you can’t ignore her. She’s the exception to the rule.

Athletes in sports with the highest TV viewerships tend to get the most money. It’s no mistake that eight of the 10 athletes on that Forbes best-paid female athletes list are competing in highly feminized sports like tennis and ice skating. Maria Sharapova and Venus Williams topped the list this year, and while both women are certainly talented and embody a powerful image, they both play in skirts.

The conversation about women’s looks isn’t over yet. As long as more men than women watch sports, report on sports and create sports ads, we will continue to talk about female athletes’ looks. (The objectification is so prevalent, it’s now an Onion headline.) Here’s hoping my peers—male or female—who watched the 1999 World Cup with their elementary schools soccer leagues and were inspired by those women go on to become athletes, advertisers, reporters and network executives.

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