It’s an Olympic tradition: In the run-up to the Summer Games, scores of female athletes (and a few male ones) shed their uniforms and swimsuits to pose nude or semi-nude. This year’s ESPN the Magazine Body Issue features soccer stars Hope Solo and Abby Wambach; basketball player Candace Parker; sprinter Carmelita Jeter; seven members of the U.S. women’s volleyball team, together, with strategically placed balls; and sailor Anna Tunnicliffe, who confesses, “I'm very self-conscious, especially about my stomach.”
There’s one group of Olympians that’s conspicuous in its absence from these magazine spreads: female boxers. Women’s boxing is making its medal debut at the 2012 Olympics, and this year’s crop of fighters has made a real effort to direct fans to their skills, not their boobs. Not a single woman has been caught in that classic chick boxing shot, looking coy in hot pink gloves.
American flyweight Marlen Esparza is a Cover Girl, but she appears in her television ad in a modest getup, looking fierce rather than foxy. While Hope Solo and Serena Williams (and Ryan Lochte) tarted up for a sexualized Vogue cover, Esparza was inside the magazine, in a dress, throwing punches. Esparza’s teammates Queen Underwood and Claressa Shields are also more likely to flex than flirt. And it’s not just the Americans: Ireland’s Katie Taylor, appears in an energy drink ad punching the daylights out of a heavy bag. And just try to find a sex kitten photo of India's Mary Kom, China's Ren Cancan, and Great Britain’s Nicola Adams and Natasha Jonas.
Esparza has publicly described herself as “girly,” but that’s as far as the Americans seem to have gone in addressing the decision to keep their clothes on. For the Olympians, the tough-not-sexy posing may stem from a backlash against the Amateur International Boxing Association’s proposed dress code, which would have required the fighters to wear skirts to, apparently, help spectators distinguish them from men. The boxers balked, with Ireland’s Taylor delivering the knockout blow. “I don't even wear mini-skirts on a night out,” she said, “so I definitely won't be wearing one in the ring."
The way these fighters are choosing to portray themselves in the run-up to the Olympics might also have something to do with how female professional boxers are usually packaged and sold. For the pros—women like Holly Holm, Mia St. John, and Laila Ali—sex is the easiest route to ticket sales in a male-dominated sport. Holm, for one, has a tendency to show up at weigh-ins in a string bikini. It’s the same story in mixed martial arts, where Gina Carano parlayed her looks into mainstream fame. MMA fighter Ronda Rousey is following that same path. Phase one: a spread in ESPN’s Body Issue.
In the pro game, short skirts and bikinis still put butts in seats. But as these new Olympians seem to have figured out, that won’t be true in London, where everyone wears a modest get-up. During the games at least, the color of your medal matters more than the cut of your clothes.