In winning their third straight beach volleyball gold medal, Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings cemented their status as the top athletes in the Olympics’ most-frustrating sport.
Beach volleyball has only been an Olympic event since 1996, and one could argue that, as this article puts it, the sport “has slipped into the Olympics by a back door marked ‘Sex.’ ” According to a 2008 article in Australia’s Sunday Age, “Beach volleyball successfully pushed for the 1996 Atlanta Games in part by treating IOC members to first-class return flights to a tournament in Rio de Janeiro, putting them up in luxury seaside rooms, and building a walkway from their hotel to the beach to save them from crossing the road.”
The IOC members liked what they saw from their walkway, adding the sport in lieu of non-jiggly pastimes—squash, roller hockey, etc.—that have long sought entrance to the Olympics. Beach volleyball is a surefire ratings booster, a not-so-thinly veiled excuse for men to ogle tall, tanned women running around, diving, and bending over in tight swimsuits. As London Mayor Boris Johnson wrote in a piece listing 20 reasons to be excited about the Olympics, “[T]here are semi-naked women playing beach volleyball in the middle of the Horse Guards Parade. … They are glistening like wet otters and the water is plashing off the brims of the spectators’ sou’westers. The whole thing is magnificent and bonkers.”
Until this year, female competitors were required to play in bikinis. Even now, they make headlines when they wear something other than a swimsuit. (“Cool Olympic night forces bikini cover-up,” went one AP story. Stop the presses!) As Slate has pointed out, the participants are often photographed lasciviously, with tight close-ups on their backsides. The beach volleyball ass shot has become so common that it is now used as generic clip art to illustrate any story involving balls and sand. (“Kerri Walsh Bikini Beach Volleyball Butt: An Olympic Retrospective,” wrote one website in the SEO headline to end all SEO headlines.)
Walsh Jennings and May-Treanor have publicly embraced the butt-centric nature of their sport. “Our sport is as it should be. … It's exciting, it's wholesome, but it's also sexy," Walsh Jennings told the Star-Tribune. But I wonder if it’s embarrassing for them to know that, no matter how hard they train or how well they play, they’ll always be performing for an audience that largely views them as accessories in some California beach-girl fantasy.
The shame of all this is that May-Treanor and Walsh Jennings are great athletes and a fantastic team. Walsh Jennings’ blocking skill at the net, May-Treanor’s diving digs, and the apparent mind-meld they share as they move through the sand has made them impossible to beat in three Olympics. The two women are in perfect sync, their familiarity with each other’s habits and movements allowing for improvisations that are beyond the reach of their opponents.
Their latest gold medal confirms that they’re the best team ever to play the sport. As they move into retirement—the 35-year-old May-Treanor is hanging up her bikini, while the 33-year-old Walsh Jennings wants to keep playing—here’s hoping they’re remembered as the great Olympians they are, not the scantily clad beach bunnies or glistening, semi-naked otters that the world’s asshole couch dwellers want them to be.