While You Were Staring at Their Butts, Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings Just Won Their Third Gold Medal

A Blog About the Olympic Games
Aug. 8 2012 7:38 PM

While You Were Staring at Their Butts, Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings Just Won Their Third Gold Medal

Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings
Misty May-Treanor and Kerri Walsh Jennings celebrate at the end of the women beach volleyball final match against April Ross and Jennifer Kessy. May-Treanor/Walsh won the gold medal.

Photo by DANIEL GARCIA/AFP/GettyImages

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.”

Advertisement

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.

TODAY IN SLATE

Doublex

Crying Rape

False rape accusations exist, and they are a serious problem.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

The Music Industry Is Ignoring Some of the Best Black Women Singing R&B

How Will You Carry Around Your Huge New iPhone? Apple Pants!

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

Television

The Other Huxtable Effect

Thirty years ago, The Cosby Show gave us one of TV’s great feminists.

Lifetime Didn’t Find the Steubenville Rape Case Dramatic Enough. So They Added a Little Self-Immolation.

No, New York Times, Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman” 

Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 1:39 PM Shonda Rhimes Is Not an “Angry Black Woman,” New York Times. Neither Are Her Characters.
Behold
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM An Up-Close Look at the U.S.–Mexico Border
  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 19 2014 9:15 PM Chris Christie, Better Than Ever
  Business
Moneybox
Sept. 19 2014 6:35 PM Pabst Blue Ribbon is Being Sold to the Russians, Was So Over Anyway
  Life
Inside Higher Ed
Sept. 19 2014 1:34 PM Empty Seats, Fewer Donors? College football isn’t attracting the audience it used to.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 19 2014 4:48 PM You Should Be Listening to Sbtrkt
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Medical Examiner
Sept. 19 2014 5:09 PM Did America Get Fat by Drinking Diet Soda?   A high-profile study points the finger at artificial sweeteners.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.