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Even for Olympians, the Beauty Myth Endures

Marion Jones is breaking ground for media coverage of women athletes--and it helps that she's gorgeous.


She's sleek, chic and cut.

The perfect female action figure--ready-made for The Year 2000.

Take a turn around any newsstand and you can't help but catch the magazine covers sporting freeze-frame glimpses of Jones ready for any environ. Comfy (think Barbie) in any situation: See Marion focus with just a dab of dewy lip gloss (on Time), see Marion grin in a Jetson-like aerodynamic suit (Newsweek), see Marion vogue in angel wings with glitter-dusted feet (Sports Illustrated for Women), see Marion pose for Annie Leibovitz (Women's Sports & Fitness), and, yeah, of course, see Marion run--(Scientific American's special issue, "Building the Elite Athlete," complete with mathematical equations and diagrams).

ESPN magazine, while not placing her on its cover, nonetheless acknowledges her in a string of superlatives as a stand-alone category. "The Highest, The Strongest, The Fastest, The Coolest, The Wildest. . . And of Course Mrs. Jones . . . " yells the cover headline.

This is not the first instance, and it certainly won't be the last, in which one athlete becomes an icon, synonymous if you will, with the spirit of the Olympic Games.

Who can forget Mark Spitz in his very brief, for the era, swim "trunks"--seven medals fanned across his chest? Or cherubic gold medalist gymnast Mary Lou Retton doing everything including eating her Wheaties in her American-flag leotard? Or Florence Griffith Joyner's enduring image--flowing locks and modern-art fingernails, and one-legged running wear--is one of the more high-profile examples of the blessing--or the curse--of being both telegenic and at the top of one's game.

But as Michael Messner, a professor of sociology at USC, points out, this is among the first times that someone has been tapped for such heavy coverage before the Games. "Usually it's after they've won the medals or broken the records." It doesn't take just the media-watcher elite to see the next "it" rounding the stretch. In fact, we're trained to expect it coming.

For anyone who has paid just corner-of-the-eye attention, the multiple imagery of a single visage signifies--just like the leaves turning--a new selling season is upon us. This one just happens to be called the Olympics. And Marion Jones' high-flown goal to win four gold medals--in the 100-meter dash, the 200-meter, the long jump and the 400-meter relay--has several levels of resonance. Not only is it a feat that has never been accomplished by a woman, these are the events that brought fame to African American track stars Jesse Owens and Carl Lewis. Aiming high, Jones' determination taps her as a perfect symbol of American grit.

"In this case, it has less to do with the color of her skin than with her talent and expertise. She's just hot," says Toni D. Jones, associate art director at Heart & Soul, a health and fitness magazine targeted to African American women.

Indeed, Jones the athlete is a marketer's dream--she's both fetching and chameleon-like, just as highly sought models are. (In Women's Sports & Fitness, for example, she's both cover girl and subject of a full-page Nike ad on the back cover.)

Pixie glitter and kinesiology motion grids aside--finding the next big thing is neither magic nor hard science: "This is an instant information society," says Samir Husni, head of the magazine program at the University of Mississippi and known in the industry as "Mr. Magazine." "We create those symbols. Once you get tapped, you're tapped. You click. You stay clicked. In this society, we like to gamble on winners. The bets are on her. And she's charismatic on covers . . . well, that's just the gravy."

While Nike, for whom she does endorsements, has dubbed her the "total package"--Heart & Soul's Jones (no relation) would have to agree. "Any magazine, any thing that has to do with fitness wants her. She's extremely talented, and she's attractive." The fitness publication also tried unsuccessfully to book Jones. (The magazine this month features Olympic beach volleyball players Jennifer Johnson Jordan and Annett Davis.)

But what Messner thinks is much more significant is that "generally we don't see women on the cover of sports magazines. Sports Illustrated, for example, doesn't do it except for its swimwear issue. Day-to-day coverage of women athletes just doesn't happen." The usual message, says Messner, is, "unless you are conventionally good-looking or are willing to pose and dress in sexy ways, just being an exceptional athlete isn't enough."

In this transition era, Marion Jones thus occupies a curious middle space.

Though these images attempt to underscore her strength and power, her sinew and speed, the overriding message conveyed is that Marion Jones--in figure-flattering, midriff-baring track togs--is still a kinder, gentler version of woman athlete.

Through the decades, the concept of beauty has grown to include classically beautiful women athletes who also actually sweat (not, more daintily, glow)--the likes of statuesque figures including volleyball ingenue Gabrielle Resse, basketball diva Lisa Leslie, and Jones herself, who is 5-feet-9 and a muscular 150 pounds. Beauty, the arrangement of lines, space, shadings, is still what sells. And these women are able to effortlessly merge beauty and brawn.

We still await the moment when mascara, lipstick, eye shadow and manicures, don't also have to be required equipment needed for women to play the game. Because, truth be told, says Heart & Soul's Jones, acknowledging the age-old hierarchy, "If she wasn't as pretty she wouldn't be on as many covers. Sure, she might make the inside spread. But with Marion, what more can you ask for?"

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