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Opinion Female athletes don’t need to be naked to be powerful

Geneva Abdul is a Canadian journalist based in New York.

Sports Illustrated's annual swimsuit issue hit newsstands this week. For the first time in 54 years, the issue contained a spread shot by a female photographer (Taylor Ballantyne) and featured only the third black woman (Danielle Herrington) to grace its cover.

The aforementioned spread, titled In Her Own Words, sought to take advantage of the #MeToo movement, as models were marked with bold, black, brazen words of empowerment: "TRUTH" capitalized across the breasts of Paulina Porizkova; "FEMINIST" on the forearm of Robyn Lawley; "MORE THAN MY APPEARANCE" spread across the limbs of Georgia Gibbs; "WOMAN" written neatly below Olivia Culpo's collarbone; "SURVIVOR" similarly on Aly Raisman.

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Otherwise, not much had changed.

In an interview with Vanity Fair, the issue's (female) editor, MJ Day, boasted the swimsuit edition included "Harvard graduates," "billion-dollar moguls," "philanthropists," "teachers" and "mothers." All of whom, in its pages, are reduced to their bodies. Once again, Sports Illustrated fails to adequately challenge notions of beauty, instead attempting to profit from the present, vital movement.

It could have been so much more. Throughout 2017, female athletes joined and supported the rhapsodies of #MeToo – hockey players demanding greater compensation; soccer teams fighting for equal playing conditions; gymnasts speaking up against men who have abused positions of power and taken advantage or exploited them for decades; basketball players sharing stories of their own.

But these are not the women we want to see, or the stories we want to read. Instead, we are once again reminded of the myriad ways in which active female body is objectified and sexualized. Years have gone by in Sports Illustrated's history without a female athlete appearing on its cover, but, every winter since 1964, there's been a woman in a bikini. We're quick to glamorize the female body, but when it comes to athleticism, women are nowhere to be found.

To be sure, there are athletes in the issue. This year, tennis players Genie Bouchard and Sloane Stephens joined gymnast Ms. Raisman, golfer Paige Spiranac, and Paralympian snowboarder Brenna Huckaby in the swimsuit issue, shot in black bikinis against a typical Caribbean backdrop. Last year's issue featured Olympians Simone Biles and Ms. Raisman, photographed at the gym looking powerful and athletic, yet exposed. In 2016, former UFC champion Ronda Rousey wore nothing but body paint for her cover shoot. Time and again, a publication that bills itself as one of the leading sports magazines in the world fails female athletes.

"At the end of the day, we're always going to be sexy, no matter what is happening," Ms. Day said. And why wouldn't they be? The issue serves as one of their largest drivers of revenue, having brought in more than US$1-billion over the years. Ms. Day's outmoded argument – that "it's allowing women to exist in the world without being harassed or judged, regardless of how they like to present themselves" – is a weak defence. Being stripped down in order to make that statement is irony at its best. You can't hope to fight the framework you criticize and be a part of it at the same time.

Female athletes – I'm one, having played for Trinidad and Tobago's national women's soccer team – have an opportunity to demand more than being reduced to "sexy" and "beautiful" and watch men continue to be described as "strong" and "skilled." It should come as little surprise that, in a study of more than 160 million words spanning decades of newspapers, academic articles and blog posts, men were three times more likely than women to be mentioned in relation to sport, while their female counterparts were often described in relation their age, appearance and whether there were single or married.

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I'd like to think things are getting better but, so far in 2018, it is proving to be more of the same. Before making her Olympic debut, 17-year-old American halfpipe snowboarder Chloe Kim was subject to a Sports Illustrated feature by Alan Shipnuck, who later tweeted that Ms. Kim was "utterly adorable" and "America's sweetheart." He deleted the tweets shortly after.

This week, Ms. Kim became the first woman born in the 21st century to win a gold medal at the Winter Games, and the youngest woman to win an Olympic snowboarding medal in history. She received a near-perfect score of 98.75 on her last run, and hit back-to-back 1080-degree spins, an incredible combination no other woman has ever pulled off in competition. But Ms. Kim was also reduced to her body. "If she was 18, you wouldn't be ashamed to say that she's a little hot piece of ass," Barstool Radio's Patrick Connor said.

There's no doubt #MeToo is making waves combatting rigid gender ideas around the world, but we are still failing athletes. Yes, there are a record number of women competing in South Korea – 43 per cent – but there remains six fewer medal events for women, shorter hills in ski-jumping, smaller teams in bobsledding and shorter tracks in speed skating and some biathlon events.

The notion that women are incapable of endurance betrays our dated ideas of gender. So long as we continue to push the narrative that male athleticism is the bar against all should be measured, and position the female body as inferior, or simply something to gaze at in the pages of a magazine, we're not going to get anywhere.

We don't need to be naked to be powerful.

We already are.

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