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

16 minute read

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

ESPN the MagazineGretchen Bleiler on the cover of ESPN the Magazine’s 2011 Body Issue

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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Write to Eliana Dockterman at eliana.dockterman@time.com