Skip to main content

It's not easy for a gal to turn heads, anymore. Even Olympians


The modern Olympic Games have always been a chick-flick moment for women who finally have the camera long enough to turn America's head. They haven't batted their eyes, but performed flips for enough mass adoration to last Mary Lou Retton's lifetime. They haven't vanished as fly-by darlings, but endured as women who have delivered iconic nicknames (Suzy "ChapStick" Chaffee) and haircuts (The Dorothy Hamill 'do) and first-name familiarity (Mia, as in Hamm).

The headiest time of this Oprah-era estrogen boom arrived during the Atlanta Games in 1996, dubbed the "Year of the Woman." Kerri Strug defied a fire-walker's pain threshold when she planted a near-perfect vault on one foot, and then landed on the front of a Wheaties Box. The women's soccer team unveiled its image as the girls next door, packing stadiums at the '96 Games, seeding the future of its own pro league and ending up as Letterman Show regulars.

Suddenly, women were bringing a rich, new meaning to gender equity. Paydays were on the way for athletic women who seemed bound for perpetual endorsement deals, commercial appearances and pro career opportunities. The revolution never materialized, though.

All but one of five pro leagues spawned by the Atlanta Games, the WNBA, has been shuttered. And in the aftermath of the Athens Summer Olympics and the Turin Winter Games, no single woman emerged as a mainstream hit on America's pop-culture charts. Only one woman (non-Olympian Michelle Wie) cracked Fortune's 2007 top-50 list of highest paid athletes. Not even pro tennis players and career Olympians like Venus and Serena Williams made it.

The Olympics used to make up for some of the fame -- and pay -- differential between women and men, but that has changed since Picabo Street charged down mountains and into American living rooms. Not even traditional Olympic darlings are finding ever-lasting fortune.

Carly Patterson, who captured the Holy Grail of Olympic glory in Athens -- the women's all-around gold in gymnastics -- has been nearly invisible since the '04 Games, trying with little luck to get her music heard at any 60-watt station that will play her tunes. Sasha Cohen, who took a skating silver at Turin in 2006, didn't enjoy the same commercial love as Michelle Kwan, who won silver at the '98 Nagano Games and bronze at the '02 Salt Lake Olympics.

As the 2008 Beijing Games begin, there will be women whose names will be rightly added to the list of great American athletes, but increasingly, their achievements will likely occur in an Olympic vacuum, with expiration dates on their celebrity.

What happened to ponytail power? It's a combination of complex issues, but you can begin with the residual "we've-been-duped" effect surrounding Marion Jones. She was delightful, wasn't she? At the 2000 Sydney Games, she left a national audience rapt by her engaging smile, rippling track talents and medal bravado (five golds, she vowed.) She fell a tad short, with three gold and two bronze medals, but Jones' feats were more than spectacular enough to render her wholesome image as a staple of American Express ads.

She sold her book, appeared in Nike ads and amassed millions in endorsement deals. All this, even as doping suspicions began to billow around Jones when the BALCO scandal broke in 2003. Earnestly, emphatically, and always with grace, she declared herself clean, having never tested positive, with her samples as pure as a mountain stream.

It was all a lie. As much as everyone wanted to believe Jones -- and at the time, America women weren't considered as vulnerable to cheating temptations as their male counterparts -- she turned out to be as dirty as any Harry. Last year, she was forced to confess at least some of her doping sins when Jones was sent to prison for perjury about her steroid use and her part in a check-fraud scam. Jones isn't scheduled for release until Sept. 5 -- or 10 days after the closing ceremonies of the Beijing Summer Games.

She'll be there, though, as the ghost of burden for America track novas like Muna Lee and Allyson Felix. They may race clean, but with so much doping dust in the air, will they gain corporate attention?

The Jones hangover is off the track and in the pool, too. Dara Torres would be a candidate for commercial immortality if she had been defying age before steroid suspicions permeated the chlorine in swimming. How, at 41, can a mom like Torres produce pool times better than she did 20 years ago? Yes, she has submitted her blood and urine to the doping police far more than she is obliged in an attempt to blunt the drug chatter? But didn't Jones test clean, too?

The Jones backlash isn't the only obstacle for women, though. What's the shelf life of an Olympic queen when newspaper editors, slain by budgets cuts in recent years, are devoting fewer resources to the coverage of women's sports? There is less room for the WNBA stories loaded with Olympic cast members, and space is too tight for those "catching up with Dot Richardson ..." features.

What's in Vogue? Fewer female Olympians, more LeBron James. What's a gal gotta do to get a little attention? Play a man, be a novelty. That's how Michelle Wie has flexed her endorsement power despite never winning on the LPGA Tour. That's how Danica Patrick has landed on the SI cover twice in three years. And in between Patrick? No solo act has appeared on the cover of SI without wearing a swimsuit.

Hope is in the magic, though. And if anything, the Olympics present a box full of miracle possibilities. Maybe a wallflower will bloom as a human interest thriller. Maybe Torres will shed the skepticism for her legacy to prosper. Maybe gymnast Shawn Johnson will be the sweet 16 of America's dreams. Maybe, but it's not easy for a gal to turn heads, anymore. Is it last call for ladies' night at the Olympics?