On Culture

Marion Jones, a Success On the Glamour Track, Too

By Robin Givhan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 14, 2007

Even those with no interest in sports, who view the Olympics as essentially a travelogue with bad costumes, are moved by the downfall of track star Marion Jones, who recently admitted to taking performance-enhancing drugs after years of public denials.

In part, that's because of the magnitude of her achievement, winning five medals at the Sydney Olympics, three of them gold. But she was also an exemplar of the beauty inherent in female strength, held up as a role model of glamour and womanliness.

She could be both a gritty competitor and a glamourpuss -- but separately. She did not have to be a pretty athlete, a sexy sprinter or a stylish runner. She didn't glam-up her performance in the sports arena; she didn't feel the need to sprint in couture. She was not the elite version of the weekend athlete who wears lipstick and mascara to the gym.

But she cleaned up nicely.

In January 2001, Jones appeared on the cover of Vogue magazine. She was wearing a garnet-beaded Calvin Klein gown, she was barefoot on the beach in a pose that could accurately be described as classic. It was the first time an athlete had ever appeared on the magazine's cover. At the time, Vogue's editor in chief said she chose Jones as a cover subject because of her "grace under pressure." And she added that she made a point of not photographing her in running clothes.

It's not often that athletes such as Jones are celebrated for their beauty and grace in glossy magazines. Indy race car driver Danica Patrick is regularly depicted as sexy and glamorous, but her success on the track doesn't begin to approach what Jones had achieved. She is the Anna Kournikova of the Indy circuit. Olympic swimming champion Amanda Beard posed nude for Playboy magazine. But there is a distinction between celebrating anatomy and venerating the entire package.

Sports publications recognize and glorify both male and female athletes. And men's style magazines regularly use male athletes as models, as examples of the masculine ideal. But there has typically been an uneasy relationship between the kind of female beauty glorified in the mainstream world and athletics.

The female athletes who generally receive the majority of attention during the Olympics are the figure skaters and gymnasts. All of those athletes display incredible physical strength and prowess. But those sports have offered complicated and unconvincing definitions of womanliness, strength and femininity. It was satisfying to see that Jones's beauty registered amidst the grunting and sweating as she sprinted across the finish line without glitter makeup, a thousand hair barrettes or a costume designed by Vera Wang.

In the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, it took guts and nerve for gymnast Kerri Strug to complete her vault with an injured ankle. But there was something profoundly discomforting in seeing her carried off the floor like a distressed damsel. The most memorable image of Strug was not of her triumphant vault, but of her in the arms of coach Bela Karolyi -- like Fay Wray in the arms of King Kong. Her fragility was emphasized for history's visual record, not her grit. It's impossible to imagine a male athlete being carried off the field in such a manner -- not even one as diminutive as a jockey.

Women's tennis has become a fashion show. (And truthfully, the men are not far behind.) The usual sportswear companies such as Nike and Reebok are joined by designers such as Diane von Furstenberg. The arrival of fashion on the tennis courts signaled an end to stuffy tradition and in many ways was a reflection of the greater diversity among the players. But at a certain point, a line was crossed. Was it Serena Williams's leather-look mini-romper? Or Maria Sharapova's little black tennis dress complete with sequins? (How hard is it to land an ace when you're wearing a pair of chandelier earrings?)

There are still voices of prejudice that run through the culture that want female athletes to be cute or glamorous -- even when they're sweating. Almost lost in the racially insulting comments from Don Imus about the Rutgers women's basketball team was his suggestion that the women simply weren't pretty enough for him while they were performing masterfully on the basketball court. He isn't alone in believing that whatever women are doing, they should be powdered and coifed and perfect while they're doing it. Plenty of men believe that. Most women's magazines encourage that thinking with stories about how to look great while running, swimming, hiking . . . even giving birth. A lot of women believe that nonsense.

Jones was fascinating because she was a celebrated female athlete who showed that toughness on the track did not have to be tempered by a nod to traditional femininity. She didn't have to keep reminding spectators of her womanliness with long fingernails painted as elaborately as a Jackson Pollock canvas, or one-leg unitards. She could just be a superior athlete. And still pose for Vogue in her off time.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company