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Bartoli, you beauty!
Why is it that a successful sportswoman is only accepted if she 'fulfils' some idea of beauty attractiveness as designated by men. Wimbledon winner Marion Bartoli's and Serena Williams' unconventionality sits comfortably among such set norms and that alone is their triumph.
It pays to be blue-eyed, blonde and long-legged. In sport too. Consider this: In a recent Forbes list of top-earning athletes, Russian diva Maria Sharapova was placed in the No. 22 position with $29 million in to her credit (including a whopping $23 million in endorsements), while women's tennis' No. 1 player Serena Williams, winner of 16 Grand Slam crowns to Sharapova's four, was tied for the 68th position (with $12 million in endorsements). Incidentally Sharapova and Serena are the only two female athletes in the top-70 of the athletic earners bracket.
French woman Marion Bartoli's awkward sprint to the Wimbledon crown forced as many questions as they were toasts raised to the athlete-artist, who stormed tennis' elite circle of Grand Slam champions much like a blast of cool air on a sweltering summer day. The seasoned pro, who strikes the ball with two hands on the stick off both flanks, is an odd-ball player. Her ground game comes through as a furious argument rather than a dialogue. She has a laborious service action and rigorous routine. She's fleet-footed and overweight. Her triumph triggered a downpour of bouquets and brickbats. Former world No. 1 Lindsay Davenport said the 28-year-old's win opened doors, showing people that even in this era of the Williams sisters, Sharapova and Azarenka there could also be the unlikely winner if one persevered. There were the crass comments too, commentators and critics, who called on her size and shape, rather than her engaging style of play or her unflagging spirit.
However, the theatre that followed the tennis makes one wonder: Are women athletes required to fit a castiron mould? Is beauty and the body a pre-requisite to top sport's money-minting circles? Not surprisingly, most of the comments that sparked outrage in the web world came from male addresses, so is the data base for what's attractive marked by male tastes?
Former sprint queen Ashwini Nachappa, the first Indian woman to ring in the glam quotient into the sporting arena, said an attractive physical persona without performance was a short-lived idea. The striking Kodava pointed out that a case like that of Russian beauty Anna Kournikova, who though failed to win a WTA singles title, raked in millions for her Barbie Doll looks, was just a one-off and not something that would set the cash register singing till the end of time. Ashwini, who didn't just bring a dash of colour, rather the whole rainbow, into the athletic arena, said, "When you feel good it reflects in your performance, which is what counts ultimately. Have you made the podium? Have you achieved the time? There's no dodging that. "
Nandan Kamath, crack-shot sports lawyer, who represents a number of athletes besides running a sports foundation for junior talent, argued that there were several factors that made-up the marketability of an athlete. While performance was the foundation for certain types of marketing campaigns visual appeal ranked high as did ethnicity and reach, especially in the international market, where what works in the Americas may be very different from European tastes. Kamath said, "Marketers look at two areas - on field and off field, the latter is a little more complicated than the former. It also depends on what products need to be marketed. While the marketing of products like shoes and gear will largely be performance driven, cosmetics, fashion and clothes may prioritise a pretty face, where available alternatives are Hollywood stars and supermodels. "
Kamath, formerly a top junior cricketer, however, stressed that on-court conduct needed to be protected. "It's not OK to sex-up sport on-field just for the sake of it. That is offensive, " he said, "It is important that an athlete is always comfortable with what they're wearing when they're playing. Maybe some people work best in long, flowing robes, while others do it in short skirts, whatever works for the individual. It's unfair to take that choice, whatever it may be, away from the athlete. "
There's no denying, however, that the bulk of sports fans are male. While the number of women following sports has increased significantly in the last decade, the galleries are still a male preserve, and often what's being tossed out on to the big stage - in terms of cosmetic quality - is what appeals to the viewer. It's more than likely then that the negative comments - be it against the 2013 Wimbledon champion Bartoli or the double gold medalist in the London Olympics Rebecca Adlington, of who it was said, that she might enjoy an unfair advantage in the swimming because hers was a dolphin's face, or Aussie Liezel Jones, four time Olympian with nine medals in the quadrennial Games, who received huge flak last year for weight issues - are coming from male fans. Women are often shown to be more critical of their own sex, but the negative tide in sports has a clear marker.
Interestingly, the fresh-faced Agnieszka Radwanska, ranked No. 4 in tennis, was blacklisted by a Catholic youth organization for posing in the nude for ESPN's 'body issue' magazine, which celebrated athletic physiques. The 24-year-old had her feet dipped into a pool that had a smattering of tennis balls. A spokeswoman for the magazine said that issue showcased, "photos that celebrated sport's most prized physiques, both male and female".
However, Poland's Krucjata Mlodych or the 'Youth Crusade', a religious group, wasn't cheering in appreciation as their ambassador flashed her athletic form. "It's a shame that someone who has declared their love for Jesus is now promoting the mentality of men looking at a woman as a thing rather than a child of God worthy of respect and love, " Father Marek Dziewiecki is reported to have said. Radwanska, who was an ambassador for a campaign called, "I'm not ashamed of Jesus, " run by the Youth Crusade, will no longer be associated with the group because of what they called as, "immoral behaviour".
Sports psychologist Chaithanya Sridhar, pointed out that women's sport was often viewed as an object of beauty rather than the pursuit of excellence. She stressed, however, they while such beliefs didn't spread across the board among fans and decision makers, there was a large section that went with the idea.
Dr Sridhar pointed out, "Technically speaking the woman athlete is breaking gender stereotypes, just by being in sport. Given her career choice, you'd expect the physical factor to take a back seat. Unfortunately no, as looks and sex-appeal play a huge part in the popularity of a female athlete. That, however, must be differentiated from ability. Just because you have a pretty face and great legs you're not going to finish a Wimbledon final with a winner... It's not uncommon for male spectators or athletes to check out women competitors for their looks rather than performance which is almost never ever the case with men. "
So while beauty and the body has little to do with the winner's prize, it often dictates the figures on endorsement cheques. It's a two-way street in women's sports then, and as Serena Williams has often said, "you win some and you lose some. "
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