Federica Pellegrini has posed nude on the cover of Italy's Vanity Fair, including for this Aug. 2010 issue.Unsurprisingly, many Olympic athletes are known for their looks as well as their performance. That's the case with female swimmers Federica Pellegrini of Italy and Stephanie Rice of Australia, who are making headlines for posing nude and in a bikini respectively. Pellegrini in particular has become a major star in her home country thanks to naked photo shoots for Vogue and the Italian version of Vanity Fair, plus her willingness to discuss her sex life with boyfriend and fellow Italian Olympian swimmer Filippo Magnini. Both Pellegrini and Rice have taken some heat from critics for flaunting their looks, but that may not be the biggest issue with the idea of athletes as sex symbols. Instead, perhaps an even more pivotal question is how that portrayal affects public treatment of the athletes who aren't seen as sex symbols.
Pellegrini, Rice and other Olympians famed for their bodies draw a huge amount of media and popular attention, and from one standpoint, that's not all bad. Being an Olympic athlete is usually a tough path from a financial perspective, especially in women's sports, and many women's sports don't get a huge amount of attention even at the Olympics. If Pellegrini and Rice can use their looks to help attract corporate sponsors and fans, there are some positives there. The problem comes from the flip side, though; while Pellegrini and Rice are pulling all that attention, they're far from the only athletes competing at the Games, and what happens to those who aren't considered to be as beautiful by conventional standards?
Stephanie Rice tweeted this picture of herself in a bikini, which has offended some.In the case of women's swimming in particular, that's led to a couple of ugly situations already. One notable example is that of Rebecca Adlington, the 23-year-old phenom who won the 400 and 800 metre freestyle events in Beijing, becoming the first British swimmer to earn dual golds since 1908 in the process. Adlington has received some praise for her accomplishments, sure, but she's also taken a lot of vitriol for her supposedly-deficient looks. For example, after she won an 800-metre event in Barcelona, one Twitter user sent her a message saying "you shark fin nosed ******** , you belong in that pool you ****ing whale." It isn't just nobodies going after her, either, as Adlington has been repeatedly mocked on British television by people like comedian Frankie Boyle, who said she "looks like a beagle" and made some rather nasty remarks about her sex life. All of her accomplishments in the pool haven't been enough to silence that kind of criticism.
Holley Mangold has taken fire from fellow athletes as well as fans over her appearance.Adlington is far from alone. The Herald-Sun, an Australian newspaper from Melbourne, recently not only called decorated Aussie swimmer Leisel Jones fat, but also published a poll asking if she was fit to swim in London (before quickly taking it down after public outrage). Teenage British weightlifter Zoe Smith, expected to be one of the U.K.'s top finishers in that competition, has been attacked for "looking like a man", and American weightlifter Holley Mangold (sister of New York Jets' centre Nick) has faced brutal criticism over her weight from fellow athletes as well as average viewers. That may be the bigger question with making athletes into sex symbols; there are obvious benefits for the conventionally-attractive ones who can parlay looks into fame, and even posing nude (as many Olympians and other professional athletes have done) isn't necessarily a bad thing, but does praising some for being considered conventionally attractive seemingly empower everyone to mock those who don't meet that standard?