Check out Slate's complete coverage of the 2010 Winter Olympics.
To hear Josh Levin, Stefan Fatsis, and Mike Pesca discuss how the media portrays Lindsey Vonn on Slate's sports podcast "Hang Up and Listen," click the arrow on the audio player below and fast-forward to the 30:05 mark:
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There have been other Olympians in the Lindsey Vonn mold. Picabo Street, a friend of Vonn's, won a gold medal in the 1998 Winter Olympics. Speed skater Bonnie Blair is tied with Apolo Ohno as the American with the most medals in the Winter Olympics. Hannah Kearney, who won the gold in moguls this week, seemed deeply appealing, showing up for her post-race interview swinging her sneakers. But their fame does not tend to stick. The skaters hog all the glory, performing in shows, appearing in commercials into a ripe old age. Dorothy Hamill is still a household name and was just hired by Vaseline to shill their new face cream. Bonnie Blair, despite her record, is mostly unknown. Street is retired and raising her children.
Vonn, however, has more star potential. She already has a lucrative sponsorship from Red Bull. She has a soap opera all her own, with a father who disapproves of her husband, Thomas Vonn, who is also her coach. The details of her life story suggest she's built to last: She does push-ups in the aisles of airplanes, she listens to T.I.'s "Dead and Gone" to get pumped up for her races, she fell so hard in 2006 that she was sure she'd end up in a wheelchair and instead she was up and skiing 48 hours later. She's also beautiful but not in the Anna Kournikova mode: She'll never be accused of being a hyped-up beauty who gets more attention for her looks than her athletic performance merits.
One of the reasons skaters have enduring appeal is that they get to show their bodies. The camera lingers on their theatrical expressions, their arched backs, their perfect calves. We watch them as they wait to receive their scores, smiling and weeping on camera for minutes on end. Skiers, meanwhile, charge down the mountain so fast you can barely see them. They're also covered up from head to toe, with even their expressions hidden behind goggles. Unless NBC makes her the subject of a soft-focus feature, you might not get to see a skier's face until she's standing at the podium receiving her medal. For those still offended by Vonn's photo shoot, think of it this way: By posing in a bikini, she has just evened the playing field.
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