It will exist as one of those frozen moments, an impossibly happy micro-Camelot (because nothing so orgasmically fine can last longer than a synapse), sandwiched between the grim discoveries in Kosovo and in the waters off Martha’s Vineyard, when we all paused to breathe collectively: “Yes!” We knew it was going to happen, we’d been talking about it for weeks, but it went down too perfectly even to have been scripted. It united the whole country, connected generations, genders and races. And it was the finest day in women’s bodybuilding.
What else can you call it when the predominant image across America is an ecstatic female athlete, ripping off her shirt, and flexing triumphantly before the entire world, and no one questions it? The cover of Newsweek: “GIRLS RULE!” The cover of Time: “What a Kick!” The cover of Sports Illustrated -wait, isn’t that a MALE domain, where women rank only a sidebar?
But you can’t argue with the numbers: 90,185 fans (including the President) plus a billion via TV saw Brandi Chastain’s double biceps and Nike sports bra. Twenty three million dollars in tickets sold for the games. Two point nine million households watched the Brazil game on July 4th, a bigger audience than that for game seven of the NHL’s Stanley Cup finals. One hundred thousand girls took up soccer between 1990-1997, before Mia Hamm became a household word…
Significant as these figures are, they only begin to tell the story, which was unfolding in the media weeks before Brandi drilled that upper right past Gao Hong. Cheering alongside the usual throngs of painted pre-teen “mini-Mias,” were (gasp)…guys! And that gets the advertisers’ attention because young males are their prime demographic. Guys…women’s sports…soccer? What the hell’s going on here?
For as long as we can remember, women’s sports and soccer have never been taken seriously in the big picture. Tolerated perhaps. The prevailing attitude could be summed up by a sports-writer for the Philadelphia Daily News who sneered at any implications that the women’s soccer revolution was anything more than cute, a mere blip in sports, a “win-one-for-the-USA-go-girls-go snapshot.” Ho-hum. The hype had all been orchestrated, even to the busloads of bored male rent-a-fans. Women’s soccer would never crack the national consciousness, because there isn’t any national consciousness anymore, except for NFL football. “Good night” he woozed. “Good niche. Three weeks til Eagles camp…”
Funny thing about that: it echoes the big wheels in the bodybuilding politic. Can’t sell these women or their contests, but we’ll let ’em languish along. Give the big bucks to the boys. Time notes the pay disparity with the soccer women, “some of whom earn less than $30,000 -coffee money for a male professional.” Sound familiar?
Try this for irony: while the women have brought finesse to bodybuilding posing, they’ve actually made soccer more physical and aggressive. Aficionados argue that women’s soccer is more exciting and offensive-minded than men’s, noting that “women are more likely to have one-on-one confrontations.” Women, adding mano-a-mano to a men’s sport? Dayamn! But that final shoot-out was absolute mano-a-mano.
However, to dwell solely on the games and the contests themselves is to miss the point. The true connoisseurs of female muscle must realize that the competitions are merely a pretext for getting these women together, out into the open, where they can be seen in a justifiable format. Bodybuilding contests have never been the final word, nor will they ever be, as much as we need them to keep some sort of dynamic going. Whether they knew or cared, Brandi Chastain and her cohorts have doubtless done more to advance the cause of female muscle than all (virtually unknown outside of bodybuilding) Ms. Olympias.
How else could you have U.S. News and World Report marveling “now you have big, strong, sweaty women knocking each other down… and thrilling fans,” and Time announcing “Now It’s Sexy to be Strong.” Or Newsweek telling us”…young, muscular women of surpassing skill…had become a new kind of national hero.”
You’ve got it all here in epic package: the “aging” lion(ess), airborne Michelle Akers, who expends herself heroically during the big game, but rips off the IV’s and oxygen mask to stumble back out to the finale; the reluctant idol, Mia Hamm, beautiful, modest (when she’s not challenging Michael Jordan “I can beat you” in multi-million dollar spots), her poster adorning countless girls’ (and boys’) bedroom walls, her jersey digit 9 the hottest number in town; the dark, enigmatic, unsung savior, Briana Scurry; and of course, the shot seen round the world, “I-ran-my-ass-off-for-this-body-I’m-proud-of-it,” Brandi Chastain… These women are household names. And that’s significant to us because their prominence is forever tied to straining, sweaty, muddy-specked quadriceps, bone-crunching collision and all-out exertion. It’s raw muscle, shown in function (always an Achilles for public acceptance of bodybuilding),and thus needs no excuses. Lady-like? Ha! You tell Mia she’s not ladylike!
And it can only get better; many of these women are more muscular, especially in their legs, than the McLish-era bodybuilders. Soccer is exhausting. Soccer is punishing. Soccer is all-out sprinting, leaping, diving, abrupt changes in direction, explosive kicks, thrusting yourself back up to your feet even before you hit the ground, long, pinpoint overhead throws. And now sports nutrition and weight-training are universally practiced; in fact the same issue of U.S. News and World Report which covered the game also carried an article espousing High-Intensity weight training for everyone.
What does all this mean? It means that within the next few years, you’re going to see these women get much more muscular as the standards of play-action ratchet upward and a new generation of Mias takes to the field, unencumbered by antiquated notions of physical correctness and sports-conditioning (read: squats are cool). We’ll have to do something about those baggy uniforms. It’s not Lenda or Andrulla; it’s not the appreciation of muscle for its beauty, rather than for what it can do. But it’s a soaring header forward for female muscle, and we’ll take it. We’ll take it!