Sunday, June 10, 2012

Maria Sharapova and the Dilemma of Beauty and Sport

Every girl or woman who plays sports knows the unfairness. No matter how skilled or talented, every female knows her appearance will be judged as she plays her sport. She may win, she may lose, but her looks and beauty will be assessed. No women enjoy this, some benefit from it, most resent it but all female athletes have to grapple with it. In the end the only way to silence the beauty obsession of the male gaze lies in triumph with skill. Maria Sharapova’s win at the French Open illustrates the dilemma in all its unfairness.

Maria Sharapova is a beautiful woman. Tall, blond, svelte muscled, cheek-bones, graceful and spirited. In 2004 at 17 she won Wimbledon and in four years had picked up three grand slams. She earns an estimated 22.5 million dollars a year in endorsements, the best-paid female athlete in the world. Yet she has not been ranked number 1 since 2008 and won no grand slams in the last 3 years. Her income towers over tennis players, male and female, far more highly ranked and often more skilled.

Players seethe believing correctly that her looks and personality factored more highly than her skill in her endorsements. This was not the confluence of beauty and dominance that Tiger Wood exploited. She played erratically and never really dominated the circuit, only reaching number one ranking 5 times.  She lived in the shadow of Serena Williams’ unearthly skill. She presented as the poster child for beauty mattering more than skill or talent in women’s sports.

Her beauty was magnified by the fact that she played a beautiful game, tennis, grunts and shrieks aside. Women’s tennis outfits leave little to the imagination and modern styles permit a wide array of dress—both Sharapova and Serena Williams have made a minor sport of watching their outfits.

Tennis is unforgiving. As a net sport that divides players from physical contact, tennis allows the beauty of the game to unfold with etched clarity since the line and power of movement and hitting are not marred by 240 pound linebackers trying to disrupt your play. It places heavy emphasis upon the tactics and strategy which are determined mainly by the opponent’s mind and skill, not by their physical ability to disrupt you.

This makes it a game of nano-inches, close calls and split second judgments. The sheer speed and size of modern players has all but eliminated classic net games. Power serves easily reach win percentages of 80 percent, and the game often ends up a seemingly endless grunting groundstrokes of stupendous power and accuracy as each player vies to set up the other, then slice, drop or angle shot. It’s a game that isolates each player. You can see every facial expression, every emotion, every strain of the body. Millions of spectators have watched great players implode on the court while others harden and recover themselves and come back with steely resolve.

Here is where the dilemma lies. The convergence of sheer physical beauty does not always play fair with sport talent. Many people watch sport for the beauty of the game. Sometimes they are not even aware of it, but the pleasure and awe at great plays is experienced palpably by a fan. We all admire and enjoy the aesthetic aspect of sports.

Greek art idealized the beauty of form and physical male bodies. We do it in our own pictures, just look at the plays and players in the average media outlets or the highlights of ESPN; they all draw attention to the beauty of the plays. These plays exhibit the athletic beauty of the players. We do not notice their physical looks, appearance or amount of skin showing when they execute. ESPN highlights do not caress the physical appearance of the person but the physical and mental execution of the player.

In the Greek Olympics writers raved about the physical beauty of the male athletes. Many, male and female, lusted after them. The winners and the beautiful ones got endorsements and gifts and status. Gladiators in Rome were similarly lionized with fame, status and art. But the art selectively emphasized only the good-looking ones, not the not so good-looking ones. It even made scars look good.

We are not Greeks or Romans and seldom worship the male form. But we do give endorsement deals to great male athletes, but by and large, the better-looking athletes and the great personality athletes, get the better deals. Think Tom Brady or Tiger Woods or the number of deal amassed by RG3 before he has even started a football game.

Women face the dilemma that they are judged by looks first, and many male fans cannot get beyond that. Broadcasters may want female athletes to look good for ratings but that double standard means people take them less seriously as athletes. It forces women’s team who seek male viewers to highlight physical appearance and sexuality. Once watching viewers can easily be converted to enjoy the game itself. It happens every four years with beach volleyball and the Olympics.

So as long as the majority of people who take sports seriously are men and the women’s sports and their sponsors need male viewers, teams and marketers will emphasize appearance, looks and sex appeal. They have to rely on the game to keep them there and it happens a surprising amount of the time.

I wish it were different, but it is not. I mean can you ever see a woman getting away with Pablo Sandoval’s girth in San Francisco and becoming an adored “Kung Fu Panda?”

So female athletes rightly resent how male notions of beauty and male obsessions with female sexuality drive their sports to market the way they do and award endorsements—remember the endorsements follow as much appearances but the society has a much wider tolerance for male homeliness.

But back to Sharapova. She kept up her endorsement level even when she stumbled in play, tore her rotator cuff and had surgery and did not win consistently for three years. Her beauty carried her, not her playing.

But at this year’s French Open she played on her worst surface, clay, that nullified her power ground shots and slicing angles. She wore a little black dress and beat a younger woman wearing pink. She won with laser shots skimming the nets, strong accurate serves and total command of the tactics of the court.

But more importantly she has carved out a story beyond her beauty. This win gave her a career grand slam.

The win revealed, as do the lines of her maturing face, the mental toughness and tenacity that always informed her game. She achieved too much too fast, faltered and then struggled through a debilitating injury, surgery and harsh rehab where she fell to 126 in the world. At the French Open she won on the surface where she had always lost.

In her comments, the reality of the athlete behind the beauty, the athlete’s mental beauty poured out, I could have said, 'I don't need this. I have money, I have fame, I have victories, I have Grand Slams.' But when your love for something is bigger than all those things, you continue to keep getting up in the morning when it's freezing outside, when you know that it can be the most difficult day, when nothing is working, when you feel like the belief sometimes isn't there from the outside world, and you seem so small…But you can achieve great things when you don't listen to all those things."

When she fell to the ground in tears; she wept for joy but also for vindication. Her triumph triumphed over the beauty obsession and reminded everyone that skill and strength demonstrate the deeper beauty of sport.