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The Globe and Mail

For female Olympians, it’s 1960 all over again

Did somebody put Hugh Hefner in charge of the Games when I wasn't looking? At a press conference last week featuring the British women's beach volleyball team, the first question to the athletes was: Will you promise to wear your bikinis even if it rains?

That question was followed, according to Reuters, by several more along the same lines, as if the reporters had had a collective stroke and the only word their brains could form was "bikini." The male athletes sat there while no one asked them a question, because we already knew they weren't going to wear bikinis. They were free to think about boring stuff like training routines and nutrition – not whether they'd be expelled from the competition if a stray hair escaped the vigilance of waxers. (I imagine the waxing team like a Formula One pit crew, sticky strips at the ready, with a bonus going to the first who screams, "Follicle popping, right cheek!")

This year at the Olympics, the women's beach volleyball teams have been given the option of wearing shorts and long-sleeved tops instead of bikinis, as a concession both to religious beliefs and a London summer that's been more tsunami than Bondi. The prospect of clothing has disappointed some onlookers, who perhaps assumed they'd be getting a free mojito and a pole dance along with their tickets. The American team was quick to assure its fans that, for them, it was bikini or the highway.

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In many ways, it feels like we've time-travelled to the Summer Games of 1960, with Rock Hudson and Doris Day as our bickering guides through the wormhole. It's not just the fact that the Japanese and Australian men's basketball teams got to fly business class while their female counterparts were back among the sardines, with their knees around their ears and some delicious enigma meat for consolation. Oh, no. It's the way that the female athletes' appearance continues to be such a bizarre and unpleasant distraction.

Over the past few days, Australia has been all in a tizzy over star swimmer Leisel Jones, a gold medalist in Beijing, whose fitness has been debated across the country. "Unflattering" was the euphemism of choice to describe photos of Ms. Jones that appeared in the national media, although one newspaper cut through the coyness with the headline "Nation gets in flabby flap." Australia's Minister for Sport called the criticism of Ms. Jones's weight "appalling," and one of the swimmer's teammates tweeted, "U can't judge fitness from looks anyway and how about we don't criticize at all."

Fat chance. A couple of months ago, the coach of Britain's top heptathlete, Jessica Ennis, revealed that she'd been called "fat" by high-ranking officials in her sport. We are not, of course, talking about somebody who drives a forklift up to the Arby's buffet. You could play hopscotch on Ms. Ennis's abdomen.

The last time I checked, the London 2012 motto was "Inspire a generation," not "Inspire a generation to stick a finger down its throat and start saving for a boob job." Girls are not going to be drawn into the world of elite sports if they think they're being set up as targets. British triathlete Hollie Avil, who competed in the Beijing Olympics, quit high-level sports in May after she suffered a recurrence of an eating disorder brought on by a coach telling her she was too fat. "My health and happiness was at risk," she said. "Life is just too short."

Ah yes, too short – that's another reason to criticize a female athlete. Also too stumpy, too butch, too muscular, too big-nosed or too small-nosed or just somehow not hot enough, according to the Adonises of the couch. Rebecca Adlington, who's on Britain's swim team, told The Daily Telegraph she's going to avoid reading Twitter comments during the Games because so many of them are insults about her appearance.

The flip side is that while some athletes suffer the idiocy of strangers, others reap the rewards because they look good in a unitard or a beach volleyball bikini. Champion British cyclist Victoria Pendleton is an extraordinary person – fierce in her drive, completely open about her neuroses – but, if you watch TV, you'd think she was famous for her hair. Her conditioner commercial plays endlessly during British prime time. "I want to win as an athlete and shine as a woman," she says, as her glossy, dark locks tumble out of her bike helmet.

Every time I see that commercial I think, Why isn't Roger Federer advertising conditioner? Is it because he's too busy selling Rolexes and Mercedes and other trappings of haute virility? I, for one, would like to know how he keeps his hair looking so good. I'll bet he spends as much time on it as Victoria Pendleton. Maybe even more.

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